RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Nelly Korda has had Grand Slam events on her mind for the last two weeks, not just her own, and she made it through the first round Thursday of the ANA Inspiration with just the start she wanted.
With heat-baked greens so firm she couldn’t find pitch marks, Korda hit hybrid off the tee on the par-5 18th with a front pin. That set her up for a wedge to 3 feet below the hole for birdie and a 6-under 66, giving her a one-shot lead.
Two-time major champion In Gee Chun had to scramble for par on the 18th for a 67. Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden matched that score with a par on her closing hole at the par-5 ninth with a third shot out of rough so thick she could barely see her golf ball.
Danielle Kang, projected to reach No. 1 in the world with a victory at Mission Hills, and Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont., were among those two shots behind.
Henderson, who turned 23 on Thursday, had a solid but uneventful start and was even par through 10 holes when she made up ground quickly. Her sister, Brittany, was among caddies who took advantage of a policy allowing them to drive carts because of the extreme heat.
“Normally I would never agree to taking carts, but definitely under the circumstances with it being so hot out here, and I definitely felt like since the LPGA was allowing us to use them, it was definitely an advantage for us,” Henderson said without a trace of doubt.
Hamilton’s Alena Sharp was tied for 77th after a 3-over 75 round.
The temperatures didn’t quite hit 40 degrees Celsius in the desert — that’s for later in the week — making this the most comfortable day. It was still exhausting for Korda, who described her start as “good, but tired, for sure.”
Imagine how her father felt.
Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open tennis champion, was on the 10th fairway in the morning to watch his older daughter, Jessica, post a 74. Then it was another 18 holes, along with their mother, to watch Nelly.
And this after returning from New York to watch his 20-year-old son, Sebastian Korda, make his Grand Slam debut in the U.S. Open, losing in four sets in the first round to Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont.
That got the attention of the golfing sisters, with Nelly rushing home from Arkansas last week to watch on TV.
“He looked really good, so hopefully he keeps trending upwards,” she said. “It would be really cool to see him succeed.”
Korda is better placed for immediate success in her sport, a three-time winner who already has risen to No. 3 in the women’s world ranking because of consistently solid finishes.
She wasn’t about to get wrapped up with one good round on a Mission Hills course that is playing so different from its usual Spring spot on the calendar, with Bermuda rough and greens that were firm and bouncy.
“There’s still three more days to play. There’s so much golf out there,” Korda said. “You never know what’s going to happen. And if I just string together another couple good rounds, then we’ll see where it goes.”
Chun was happy with her start, and more importantly, she’s happy to be playing golf. She won two majors early in her LPGA career, starting with the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster in 2015, that the pressure mounted as she tried to find perfection in a game that doesn’t allow for it.
That became too much too handle, and Chun had to reset to find her passion. It started to return before COVID-19 pandemic shut down the LPGA Tour for five months, and the time in South Korea only helped.
“I really tried not to be hard on myself on the golf course. I wanted to have fun out there and work really well, and I made a great round today,” Chun said.
Kang was pleased with her scoring, too, especially the 5-iron from 191 yards on the par-3 fifth that was inches away from an ace, a shot that elicited a scream of “Get in the hole!” from a voice Kang recognized.
“My mom,” she said. “Yeah, this was the first time she got to come watch me play this entire year, so I’m really excited and happy about that.”
Her mother was excited, too, at least on that shot.
“She sometimes doesn’t even know if I made a birdie or not,” Kang said. “She just keeps taking off. I tell her, ‘Can you just watch instead of running off to the next hole?’”
There was plenty to see, and a full week left as Kang tries to add another major and rise to No. 1 in the world.
Jin Young Ko, the No. 1 player and defending champion at the ANA Inspiration, is home in South Korea has not played an LPGA event this year as she sits out the COVID-19 pandemic, playing only three times on the Korean LPGA.
The players at 69 included two-time ANA Inspiration winner Brittany Lincicome, who carried an umbrella to shield her from the sun and wore a brace that was heavily taped around her left thumb to keep it from causing pain. Lincicome said it has limited her practice — not that she has a reputation for grinding on the range — but she now is swinging freely.
She mostly was happy about playing early because of the heat.
“Playing in the morning you have to take advantage of it because tomorrow, l think even par is going to be fantastic,” he said. “A few greens today were releasing 20 yards already, and that’s only in the morning. Tomorrow I’m going to have to battle the heat, battle the firmness of the greens, and it’s going to be a little bit more challenging, for sure.”
Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press