Steinhauer leads Gulbis by 1 at ShopRite

Sherri Steinhauer at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Sherri Steinhauer at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. – The ShopRite LPGA Classic is back, and so seemingly is 47-year-old Sherri Steinhauer.

photo

Alexis Thompson made her professional debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Thompson, 15, transitions to pro ranks

The question on everyone’s mind: Is she ready?

After missing all of last year following surgery on both hips and grueling rehabilitation, Steinhauer stole the show in the opening round of the reborn ShopRite event with a near-flawless 7-under 64 on Friday on the Bay Course at Seaview.

“It’s not easy to get up and get into the gym and to do these tedious little exercises and spend the hours in there,” Steinhauer said. “But when I got frustrated or down, I just said, ‘What’s the alternative? Do you want to get out there and play?’ So that would just get me excited. I would imagine being back out on tour, and that would get me excited.”

Nothing was more thrilling than the opening round of the $1.5 million tournament in the shadow of Atlantic City, an event that folded in the fall of 2006 after 21 years in a dispute over dates with LPGA leadership.

The LPGA reached an agreement with a new tournament director over the past year and ShopRite returned as the main sponsor.

Steinhauer gives the tournament a link with its past. She and Juli Inkster are the only players to compete in every ShopRite Classic.

Steinhauer had six birdies, an eagle and one bogey in taking a one-stroke lead over Natalie Gulbis and rookie Tania Elosegui of Spain.

“To have a 64 under my belt after not playing golf – I didn’t touch a club for 14 months – so it feels real good to get a round like this,” Steinhauer said.

Ai Miyazato, the Japanese star who has dominated the women’s tour with three victories this year, was in a group two shots back.

Brittany Lincicome, Suzann Pettersen and Paula Creamer, who is playing in her first event since surgery on her left wrist on March 31, were in another large group three shots back.

Steinhauer had played in only five events this year and missed the cut in the past two, including last week’s State Farm Classic.

The road back has been a long one. The eight-time winner on the LPGA Tour thought her career might be over in August 2008 when she missed the cut in the Canadian Open after two painful rounds.

“I didn’t know if I would ever play golf again,” Steinhauer said. “It was on Friday. I was missing the cut, and I was walking up the fairway with tears in my eyes thinking: ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever play professional golf again.’”

Steinhauer had surgery on her left hip in February 2009. Three months later her right hip was fixed and the rehabilitation process started. She didn’t pick up a club until October, when she started hitting wedges. By the end of the month, she was taking full swings.

All the work paid off on Friday.

“I just love playing golf,” said Steinhauer, who will be an assistant captain on the 2011 U.S. Solheim Cup team, “I love competing. You know, hey, if my career ends because I can’t play anymore, that’s OK. I’ll move on. But I’m not satisfied just giving up, so I wanted to work hard because I love it.”

Creamer, who is still bothered by wrist pain, might have been just as surprising a story as Steinhauer. She played her first full round earlier this week and had six birdies and two bogeys on Friday.

“I was nervous, I didn’t know what to expect,” Creamer said. “Like I said I am glad to be out here and have the opportunity to play.”

Gulbis had six birdies and no bogeys in launching her bid for a second career win. Elosegui, who has won on the women’s European tour, putted extremely well, making seven birdies in shooting a 65.

Cristie Kerr, who became the first American to win on the LPGA tour when she won the State Farm Classic in Illinois on Monday, was at 3 under. Michelle Wie had a disappointing 3-over 74. Fifteen-year-old Alexis Thompson shot a par 71 in her professional debut.

The 54-hole tournament is scheduled to end Sunday.

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