Nelly Korda tees off on the 14th hole during the first round of the 2023 US Women’s Open. Kathryn Riley
At 8:50 a.m. local time Thursday, the trio of World No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 2 Nelly Korda and 11-time LPGA winner Lexi Thompson teed off on the 10th hole of the Pebble Beach Golf Links in the first round of the 78th US Women’s Open. About 15 minutes and 16 shots played later, the seaside links already had shown its bite. Korda opened the tournament by slicing her drive over the cliff and eventually made a double bogey. Ko drove into the left fairway bunker while Thompson hit into the left rough, and both made bogey.
Welcome to the first women’s major played on this famed course. Ko ended up shooting a shocking 79, Korda scored 76 and Thompson “won” the group with a 74.
“Hard,” Thompson said when asked how the course was playing. “I know there could be a lot more wind than there is today. It always plays difficult. Tee shots are hard, and bunkers have a lot of sand and the rough is up really thick. It’s definitely a major championship golf course.”
Pity the players who had to start in a light mist on the par-4 10th. The 428-yarder on the cliffs above Carmel Beach played as the hardest hole for the morning wave, at nearly a half-stroke over par (.46). Only 29 per cent of the first 78 players hit the green.
Don’t tell the players starting on 1 that they had it easy. The true opener played as the fifth-hardest hole, and in an example of how treacherous any misses at Pebble can be. Jennifer Kupcho hit her first tee ball in the afternoon wave into the left rough. She slashed her next shot only 47 yards, the ball being swallowed in the thick eyelashes of a bunker. Kupcho then all but shanked the third shot right and eventually made a double bogey.
The unknown of how the women would fare in major conditions at Pebble was a fascinating prospect heading into the championship. From the looks of early play on Thursday, as long as the conditions are benign, which they were on this morning, there are players who have answers for this test. But for those who aren’t feeling sharp, they will be absolutely exposed because of deep rough everywhere, along with finding and then putting on Pebble’s claustrophobic greens. Thirty-five players in the morning shot 76 or higher.
China’s Xiyu Lin, a 27-year-old who tied for third in the recent KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltrusrol, managed the layout beautifully, suffering only a single bogey on her last hole, the ninth, to shoot a four-under-par 68 and take the clubhouse lead. Lin is not a long hitter and averaged only 254 yards off the tee in Round 1, but she was in the fairway most of the time (12 of 14) and gained nearly four strokes on the early competitors in putting.
Making strong pars at Pebble Beach is critical, and they don’t come better than Lin’s 4 at the No. 8. Her tee shot travelled only 172 yards, leaving her a daunting 217-yard shot to the over the cliffside chasm; She answered with near-perfect wood to 18 feet and two-putted for par.
Others didn’t fare as well. There were 14 bogeys, two doubles and one 7 at No. 8 in the morning. Only three players made birdie.
The most shocking result came from Ko, a two-time major winner who has two victories this year. Among the pre-tournament favourites—and rightfully so, considering she spent more than a week practising at Pebble—the World No. 1 made six bogeys and a stunning double bogey on the par-3 17th when she hooked a wood into Stillwater Cove. That is a miss that a Pebble Beach golf tourist would cringe at. Ko’s 79 put her near last in the morning wave; she only beat 52-year-old Annika Sorenstam by one shot and tied Amy Olson, who is seven months pregnant.
The adage at Pebble Beach is that you have to make hay on the first seven holes before holding on eighth and onward. But that only played out in a minor way early, with the front playing three-quarters of a stroke easier, with the total score average of 74.63.
Beyond the 10th, the dogleg par-4 16th, playing at 377 yards, was the second hardest, yielding zero birdies and 22 scores of par or worse. The 429-yard ninth was playing predictably hard with an average of 4.35.
The easiest hole in the morning was the uphill par-5 sixth, which gave up 28 birdies, followed by the 308-yard par-4 fourth and 367-yard 15th. The little par-3 seventh, one of the most photographed holes in the world, was set at 113 yards and allowed 15 birdies but exacted 14 bogeys. And the 18th, as one of the greatest finishing holes in the game, was not laying down, playing at 5.14 average strokes.
Even in the more playable morning conditions., three of the top-four ranked players in the world (Ko, Korda and Lilia Vu) combined to shoot 18 over par, and Thursday morning’s “featured group” of Ko, Korda and Thompson traversed far more of the Pebble property than they hoped. It was if they fed off negative vibe instead of positive.
Korda shot herself out of the KPMG Women’s PGA two weeks ago with rounds of 76-77, and with the tough double-bogey start at Pebble, the World No. 2’s body language was not promising. She bogeyed three more holes on her front before making a salvage birdie at 18. Korda rallied with birdies at 3 and 6 but gave the gains back with bogeys at 7 and 8.
In a wild statistical gap, Korda gained 6.47 strokes off the tee and lost 10.59 in short game.
Thompson, who has been struggling badly of late, managed the best score of her trio with a 74. Beyond the bogey at 10 to open, she made a double bogey at No. 1 and bogey at 7. Thompson, one of the longest drivers on tour, also made a curious decision at the 18th. She chose iron off the tee, hit it an impressive 263 yards, but after laying up to 135 yards, Thompson managed an approach to 20 feet and couldn’t make the birdie putt.
Apparently, that big body of water on the left can be very intimidating.