SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN, Ariz. — The field of 144 golfers who descended on Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club east of Phoenix consists of six of the top 10 players in the Rolex Rankings.
Nelly Korda, No. 2 in the rankings, is here, along with No. 3-ranked Jin Young Ko, who won the last LPGA event that was held to Arizona in 2019. Other top 10 golfers in the field include Atthaya Thitikul (3), Lexi Thompson (6), Brooke Henderson (7), and In Gee Chun (8).
Top-ranked Lydia Ko and fifth-ranked Minjee Lee skipped the event, just the second on U.S. soil in 2023, but otherwise it’s a who’s who of LPGA golfers.
Three tied for the lead
After 18 holes, there’s a three-way tie for the lead and all three golfers played late in the afternoon wave, with two of them finishing just in time to beat the setting sun.
Alison Lee, Jenny Shin and Gaby Lopez each fired 7-under 65s. Lee had six birdies and just one bogey on her first nine holes (she started on the back nine) and then birdied Nos. 1 and 2 to get to 7 under to take the outright lead. Another birdie on the fourth got her to 8 under and briefly put her on 59 Watch.
“It was one of those days golf was just easy,” she said. “I was honestly playing so well I thought I could’ve shot a lower round.”
She closed with four straight pars and a bogey.
Gaby Lopez played late and posted a bogey-free 65. She started with a birdie on her first hole, the 10th, and three birdies later she made the turn in 32. Lopez admitted after her round she had only played Superstition Mountain one other time and it was about five years ago with Carlota Ciganda.
“When it gets cooler the ball just doesn’t go as far,” Lopez said, noting the chillier late afternoon temperatures altered her approach. “The greens get a little firmer, so you just got to make a little adjustment to how much the ball is a going to bounce.
“So, yeah, supposedly tomorrow morning is going to be a little cooler than it this afternoon, so we’ll just have to gear up.”
Jenny Shin, who said she hadn’t played the course before this week, birdied the 18th hole to get to 7 under. She had eight birdies in all, including her first and last hole, and had just one bogey.
On the 11th hole, Korda almost holed out for eagle, as her approach spun back and then a caught a bit of the edge of the cup before stopping about two feet out.
So close to an eagle!! @NellyKorda | @NBCSports pic.twitter.com/4jBLbNx9Ws
— LPGA (@LPGA) March 23, 2023
But she would then miss the short putt for birdie. Two holes later she faced another short birdie and made it to get back to even par. In all, she had six birdies but also two bogeys as well as a double-bogey 6 on the par-4 10th hole. She finished the first round strong, with birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 18 to shoot a 2-under 70.
Jin Young Ko
A left-wrist injury derailed her 2022 season but three weeks ago, she bounced back in a big way, defending her title at the HSBC Women’s World Championship. She’s one of three winners in 2023, and all three are in the Drive On. Grouped with Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson, Ko, much like Korda, birdied the par-5 18th to post a 2-under 70.
Two months ago, in the LPGA’s season opener in Florida, Henderson won her 13th title in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions. The third member of the all-star threesome with Korda and Ko, Henderson had a large contingent of Canadian fans following her around.
One group of fans in particular were all wearing Saskatchewan Rough Riders gear. Her gallery even included fellow Canadian Mike Weir’s high school gym teacher. Henderson shot 1-under 71.
The third-ranked player in the world turned 20 last month. She briefly held the No. 1 ranking last November, joining Lydia Ko as the only LPGA golfers to do that as teenagers. Thitikul has two LPGA victories and on Thursday in Arizona, shot a 3-under 69. She had four birdies on her card before bogeying the par-5 18th hole.
Thompson, making her first start of the 2023 season, was in the early wave Thursday and her scorecard featured three birdies and three bogeys for an even-par round of 72. That leaves her tied for 94th after 18 holes. Her last victory on the LPGA was at the 2019 ShopRite LPGA Classic.
Vu was among the large group of 11 golfers at 5 under. She started on the back nine and noted how different the greens were playing on each side. Like Henderson and Ko, Vu is one of the three winners on tour this season. She won the LPGA stop in Thailand a month ago after rallying from six shots back to start the final round. It was her breakthrough LPGA win.
“I don’t really feel different. I feel like I just happened to play well and have fun, and then that’s how I ended up winning,” she said after her round Thursday. “Each week my goal is just to have fun. I know if I can do that, my golf will follow.”