Fireworks abound as Mamiko Higa keeps lead in Women's Open
 

Fireworks abound as Mamiko Higa keeps lead in Women's Open

Jessica Korda charges into second place with tidy 68 in morning wave

06/01/2019
Reid Nelson Columnist
image (Photo by Chris Keane/Copyright USGA)
Jessica Korda blasts from a greenside bunker on the ninth hole at the Country Club of Charleston.

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Hot.

That has likely been the most-used word all week around the Country Club of Charleston, where the second round of the 74th U.S. Women’s Open unfolded Friday—and not just because of a heat wave that has produced record-setting temperatures across the South Carolina Lowcountry all week.

Thursday’s first round produced some hot scoring, as 42 players matched or bettered par, seven shot in the 60s and a relatively unknown qualifier, Mamiko Higa of Japan, fired a 6-under 65–the lowest round ever in a U.S. Women’s Open debut and the lowest score in any round of the championship since the first round in 2016–to hold a one-shot overnight lead.

But while Friday’s temperature stayed in the sultry realm, scoring cooled a bit, as the historic Country Club of Charleston links showed its own fiery persona, helped further by fickle winds that strengthened as the day wore on and a pin sheet that showed 10 of the 18 holes cut five or fewer paces from the edges of difficult and often elevated putting surfaces.

Still, it wasn’t enough to knock Higa off her perch atop the leaderboard.

Barely beating sunset, Higa birdied her final hole of the day, the par-5 ninth, to finish at even par for the day, get back to 6 under par and regain the one-shot lead she had held when the day started. Only difference is, when Saturday’s third round begins, it will be five-time tour winner Jessica Korda who’s a shot back, not Esther Henseleit, a young and yet-unproven entity as a professional, from Germany.

Korda, a 26-year-old from Bradenton, Fla., joined her younger sister, Nelly, on the first page of the leaderboard, as both seek their first “major.” Jessica posted a bogey-free 3-under 68 to get to 5 under for the championship. Nelly was 1 under for the day and 3 under for the championship, in a tie for fifth, when play was called due to darkness.

A fast-moving thunderstorm forced officials to halt play at 4:47 p.m. The storm brought little rain to a parched area mired in a long and severe drought, but lightning lit up the skies over the Country Club of Charleston, and one bolt struck a huge live oak in between the 11th and 18th greens, scarring the tree and scorching the ground around it. Fortunately, no one was injured by the strike, which was captured by Fox Sports TV cameras.

The lightning strike prompted the tweet of the day from LPGA Hall of Famer Beth Daniel, who grew up playing the Country Club of Charleston and knows only too well the dangers of the formidable par-3 11th hole.

“This is scary stuff, but I have heard that no one was hurt,” Daniel posted. “This strike was just to the left of #11 green and shows that even God can’t hit the 11th green!”

Just behind Higa and Korda, amateur Gina Kim and France’s Celine Boutier were 4 under and tied for third. But Kim, a Chapel Hill, N.C., product who helped Duke to the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship earlier this month as a freshman, is finished with her second round, posting a 1-over 72. Boutier was even for the day, but still had the last four holes of the front nine to play when darkness intervened.

Of the players at 3 under par, American Jaye Marie Green and Jeongeun Lee6 of Chinese Taipei finished their second rounds in the morning while Lexi Thompson, looking for her first U.S. Open and her second career major title, and the younger Korda will have to finish Round 2 on Saturday.

Green posted a 3-under 68, thanks for four birdies against a lone bogey, while Lee6, the numeral her own addition to her name because there are five other players with the same name playing professionally in Asia, had four birdies and two bogeys en route to a 69.

Starting her second round on the back nine, Higa (photo) offset a birdie at 12 with a bogey at 14, before making the turn and running into trouble quickly. The player who went bogey free on Thursday dropped shots on back-to-back par-4s to start her second nine and, at the time, trailed Jessica Korda by a shot.

But the slight-of-frame Higa, who is engaged to Ikioi Shota, one of Japan’s top-ranked Sumo wrestlers, showed some fight of her own, bouncing back with birdies at the par-4 fourth and par-5 fifth holes. She three-putted the “double plateau” seventh green for bogey, then saved par from the left greenside bunker at 8, before scoring her closing birdie at the par-5 ninth to grab the sole lead.

“I was really happy because I could finish up a tough day with a birdie, and so I was so happy,” Higa said via her interpreter following her round. “I feel very lucky that I could finish up 18 holes today so that I can recover well for tomorrow.”

Higa admitted the lightning strike that victimized the stately oak, shook bleachers, tents and even the grounds at the Country Club of Charleston, also rattled her a bit. But the nearly two-hour delay gave her time to calm her nerves before heading back to the course.

“That was really scary, and that was the first time I saw the lightning hit so close. So that was really scary,” she said.

Playing earlier in the day, Jessica Korda didn’t have to contend with the storm. More important, she didn’t have to fight nearly as strong winds as she did Thursday, when she was part of the afternoon wave.

 “Pretty happy to see the wind wasn't pumping 20 (this morning),” Korda said, recalling how blustery winds had buffeted her afternoon group a day earlier. “It was a little inconsistent. Sometimes it would die down, and sometimes it would pick up so it was a little hard to guess at times.

“But I still played pretty conservatively, I think. I wouldn't really say I was being too aggressive. I was trying to be more aggressive on the par 5s, where I could take advantage of it.”

Two of her three birdies came on par-5 holes, the other coming at the par-3 17th.

The 68 was Korda’s career best in 12 U.S. Open starts. Coming into this week, Korda had missed the cut in three of the last five Women’s Opens, following her best-ever finish in the championship, a T7 in 2013.

The best round of the day belonged to Pei-Yun Chien (photo), a native of Chinese Taipei who now lives in Roswell, Ga. Her flawless 5-under 66 seemingly came out of nowhere when, after playing her first 11 holes at just 1-under, she ran off four birdies over her last seven holes, including holes 8 and 9, her final two of the day. Her 1-under 141 total had her sharing 17th when play was halted with several players still on the course.

Defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand was 2 over with two holes to play.

If Korda’s comments can be viewed as indicative of players’ sentiment, in general, players may have welcomed more rain from the afternoon storm, which proved to be more noise and pyrotechnics than precipitation.

The sudden storm dumped roughly a half-inch of rain in downtown Charleston, just a couple of miles away across the Ashley River as a seagull would fly, but didn’t drop enough rain to settle the dust on the firm, fast, but perfectly groomed Country Club course. According to one reporting station on James Island, where the Country Club is located, the area has received less and 2.6 inches of rain through the first five months of this year and, discounting the few drops Friday, none in the weeks leading up to the Open.

“The greens are really hard,” Korda said, prior to the afternoon storm. “I think trying to hold a green even with a wedge is hard. I had a couple 9 irons today that released a lot. Maybe I landed it half a yard too far. I really didn't hit too many bad shots today.

“But honestly, just trying to figure out how much it's going to release … a lot of it is a guessing game.”

 Korda wasn’t the only one taking a conservative approach Friday.

“The pins are always tough in U.S. Opens, but especially today,” Green explained. “You just had to be on the correct side of them. I didn't go for one pin today, so I think that helped my flow keep going, you know. I didn't really put myself in positions where I was struggling to make par.”

W hen play was suspended late Friday evening, the projected cut was 3-over-par 145. And with 68 players inside or tied at that number, it seemed unlikely the cut would change, despite the few players yet to finish.

Almost certain to miss the cut were two former Women’s Open champions, Na Yeon Choi (2012), who shot 74-8—154, and  Laura Davies (1987), 80-83—163, as well as Emma Talley, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur on this same course in 2013. One under after the first round, Talley soared to a 77 in the afternoon winds to finish at 147, 5 over par.

Fan favorite and 2010 champion Paula Creamer (2010), who continues to fight her way back following wrist surgery in September 2017, was just one above the projected cut the cut at 73-73—146, as was two-time women’s major championship winner, Anna Nordqvist. But the 2009 Women’s PGA and 2017 Evian winner still had two holes, including the par-5 ninth, in which to try to get inside the cut number.

 
 
 
 
 
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