Gal charges into NW Arkansas lead

Sandra Gal hits her approach shot to the 18th green at the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship. An eagle on the hole propelled her to the first-round lead.

Sandra Gal hits her approach shot to the 18th green at the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship. An eagle on the hole propelled her to the first-round lead.

ROGERS, Ark. – Sandra Gal’s approach shot barely cleared the steep hill in front of the 18th green, bouncing to within about 15 feet of the hole.

All that stood between her and sole possession of the lead was one big putt – and putting hadn’t been much of a problem for the 24-year-old from Germany.

“I’ve been aiming it a little to the left, and I’ve been working on aiming it more on line,” Gal said. “And my caddie was checking my line a little better, so I just feel I’m a little more confident over my putts because I know I’m starting them where I want without compensating.”

Gal made that last putt for an eagle on the final hole to finish at 7-under 64 in the first round of the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship on Friday. She’s one stroke ahead of Song-Hee Kim in the 54-hole event.

Brittany Lang, Pat Hurst and Angela Stanford are another stroke back in third.

Gal, who played at the University of Florida, was about 190 yards from the front of the green on No. 18, a 515-yard par 5. She took her time setting up a 4-iron approach and said she was never certain if she would reach the green.

“I knew I could hit it to that bank and it would kind of skip to the hole,” Gal said. “I had backed off of it because I was aiming wrong.”

She reached the green, then made another putt. Earlier, she’d made a 20-footer for birdie on No. 3 and a 25-footer for birdie on No. 15. Now she’s atop the leaderboard at an event that includes big names like Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer.

Gal is trying for her first win on the LPGA Tour. She led the Women’s British Open this year after the first round, but shot an 80 in the second and finished tied for 33rd.

Kim, of South Korea, finished with back-to-back birdies Friday to put herself momentarily in front of the field. Her first-round 65 came a week after a wildly inconsistent performance in Canada that landed her in a tie for 10th at a tournament there.

Kim shot a 62 in the second round of the Canadian Women’s Open, earning a share of the lead. She followed that up with a 77, then bounced back a bit with a final-round 67 for her seventh top 10 finish of the year.

Kerr, the tour’s leading money winner this year, shot a 69 Friday, one shot better than Creamer. Michelle Wie birdied the first three holes but had to settle for a 69.

Seon Hwa Lee, this tournament’s defending champion, shot a 74.

Lang eagled the par-5 14th. Her 5-iron approach rolled from the back of the green back down to within 4 feet of the hole.

“We were in between clubs,” Lang said. “I wanted to take that club, because even if you got it past, it would come back.”

The course at Pinnacle Country Club was recently renovated. On Friday, it played as a 6,244-yard par 71 – it was a par 72 last year.

“I basically threw my yardage book out at the beginning of the week,” said Paige Mackenzie, who shot a 69.

The other big difference is the weather – so far. Two years ago, this event was called off after 18 holes because of heavy rain. Rain was a factor last year as well, although players were able to finish the tournament.

It was sunny Friday for the first round, although there’s no telling what the weekend could bring.

“It was definitely wonderful weather today,” Gal said. “That’s one thing I was trying to do today. I was like, ‘The weather shouldn’t be that good on the weekend.’ I was trying to get something in today.”

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