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Na Yeon Choi and Jessica Korda scorched Jack Nicklaus’s course in the Reignwood LPGA Classic‘s opening round. Each fired bogey-free 64s on the par-73 track, putting them 4 shots ahead of Stacy Lewis, Hee Young Park, and Hee Kyung Seo and 5 shots beyond Inbee Park, Anna Nordqvist, Jodi Ewart Shadoff, Amy Yang, Carlota Ciganda, Jane Park, Paola Moreno, and JLPGA regular Li-Ying Ye. With 43 golfers breaking par and 51 shooting par or better, that pair of 64s really stand out. Where the heck did they come from?
Today was Choi’s lowest score since the final round of the Manulife Classic in mid-July, when she also went -9. Those 2 rounds are her only sub-65 scores of the year, so they’re rare to begin with. But when you consider that Choi was having trouble breaking 75 in her previous 6 rounds (she finished Evian going 73-75 and did even worse last week on the KLPGA), you have to wonder what led to this performance, where she didn’t miss a fairway, missed only 2 greens, and took only 25 putts. Birdieing her last 4 holes in a row wasn’t bad, either.
Ditto for Korda: her most recent previous low round of the year (a 65) also came on Sunday in Waterloo and she also had trouble in Evian, plus she had the added burden of having to chip away a little rust this week. Surprisingly, she wasn’t as long off the tee as Choi on the holes they measured driving distance; not surprisingly, she wasn’t nearly as accurate, hitting only 8 of 14 fairways. But she hit 15 greens nevertheless and took only 24 putts. She also made 7 birdies in her 1st 13 holes, so she had that going for her, too.
It’s certainly not shocking that Choi or Korda went super-low. Given their lack of momentum coming in, I put them low in my top 15 predictions, but I didn’t drop them out of it (although I was going to leave NYC out until I changed my mind at the last second!). After all, they’re both in the race for the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and have both been breaking 70 with regularity this season (around 42% of the time, with Korda barely ahead of Choi). Still, it’s surprising that they did it in their 1st competitive rounds on a course they’ve never seen before.
How did they account for their feats? It appears from their post-round interviews that they took opposite approaches. Choi emphasized the return of her old caddie, her low expectations, and a much more relaxed attitude than last season’s Asian swing, when she was #2 in the world and grinding for #1. Korda, by contrast, was not shy about expressing her desire for her 2nd career LPGA victory; yes, she also emphasized she’s relaxed and had fun with Morgan Pressel and Ilhee Lee in their pairing, but unlike Choi, who de-emphasized her lack of an LPGA victory in 2013 when asked, Korda said, “I finished second in Alabama and got a little taste of it and that second win. I’m kind of going after it…. I’m excited for what the next three days bring.”
Whatever works for you, eh? If Choi and Korda can keep the pedal to the metal, they can turn this into a 2-player race pretty quickly and put a lot of pressure on their lead chase pack to take risks to try to keep up with them, much less chase them down. But there’s so much talent right behind them it’s hard to imagine them being able to do that. Shanshan Feng, Lizette Salas, and Caroline Masson are at -3, So Yeon Ryu, Caroline Hedwall, Karrie Webb, Brittany Lang, and last week’s LET winner Azahara Munoz are at -2, Ya Ni Tseng, Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel, Sandra Gal, and Moriya Jutanugarn are at -1, and Beatriz Recari and Chella Choi are at E. You give them and the folks who broke 70 but not 65 all of 54 holes to make up 9 or fewer shots and you’ve got yourself a real race. Let’s see who responds to the challenge Choi and Korda laid down to the field today!