KILDEER, ILLINOIS | Early first-round leader Jessica Korda summed it up best: “Finally, a golf course that benefits the long hitters.”
She’s right. Kemper Lakes was always going to be beefy for the best women in the game – the longest course in KPMG Women’s PGA Championship history at a few paces more than 6,700 yards. The half-a-foot of rain that fell on the northern Chicago suburbs before the event (including a deluge that put an early end to Wednesday’s pro-am) made it a beast.
Anticipating wet conditions the PGA of America setup crew placed the official yardage on Thursday at 6,635. But don’t let the yardage fool you. Taking into account the wet conditions and long holes that required less than driver because of the bunkering and rough, it played at least 100 yards longer. That gave players like Korda (who opened with a 5-under 67), Charley Hull (68), Sung Hyun Park, Brittany Lincicome and So Yeon Ryu a decided advantage.
Lexi Thompson should have been on that list but her short game continues to plague her in ways big and small. Because she has so little confidence in her putting, Thompson tries to hit it close more often than she should. That cost her a silly bogey from the fairway on the par-4 12th (her third hole of the opening round) and another at the par-5 15th where she pressed to make up ground. Her best hole of the day didn’t require a putter, a 166-yard 8-iron for an ace on the par-3 sixth (her 15th hole of the day).
Ballstriking – even on a golf course like Kemper Lakes that requires long, straight tee shots and high, soft irons – will get you only so far. You have to putt well to contend. If you don’t, it has a cascading effect. You try to hit it closer to make the putts easier. Then you try to drive it farther to give you shorter clubs into the greens in order to hit to closer. Sometimes this is subtle – one more fairway and perhaps one or two more greens missed in a round – but at the highest level, that’s all it takes.
It’s why we haven’t seen Thompson in the winner’s circle since she missed a 20-inch putt at the CME Group Tour Championship last November. That short putt would have won her the $1 million Race to the CME bonus and Player of the Year honors as well as elevating her to the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings. Missing it set her back mentally.
That’s why her father, Scott, saddled up to noted PGA professional Joe Hallett on Thursday morning. Scott Thompson asked Hallett (who works with Stacy Lewis, early co-leader Jaye Marie Green, Paula Reto and Cheyenne Woods, among others) about center-shafted putters, offsets, aiming lines and all kinds of other info related to putting. Hallett didn’t quote Jackie Burke, who says, “It’s just about starting the ball on the right line with topspin. You could do that with a butter knife on the end of a broomstick.”
Until Lexi Thompson gets comfortable with her putter, all the long drives, stinger irons and rowdy fan support (and fans were out cheering for her in droves on Thursday) will be for naught.
Korda knows that. That’s why, just moments after praising a course setup for bombers, she said, “I’ve been rolling it really well.”
Then Korda said, “Actually this is how golf courses should be set up for us. It’s not even longer. It’s just that I had 8-iron (shots) into greens instead of having 60-degree (wedge), and I hit driver instead of having to hit a rescue off of the tee just to get to that 8-iron off the fairway. This is a major, and it played like a major golf course.”
But she quickly got back to what everyone knows is the key.
“It’s just about them going in the hole,” she said. “I haven’t had that the last couple of weeks. I’ve kind of just been burning every edge. So I’m just trying to stay patient. Every week is different. But, yeah, I feel OK.”