The ANA Inspiration has a way of making magic happen, for 46 years now creating memorable moments that for the last few decades have ended with a dip into Poppie’s Pond. The march to that Sunday leap begins on Thursday and this year’s first round fashioned a leaderboard as rich as any in the history of golf’s first major championship of the year.
Among those in the hunt are seasoned veterans with impressive resumes; those looking for a breakthrough win; brash, young talent with an eye on the future and a superstar looking for redemption and perhaps of bit of revenge. Pernilla Lindberg, a 31-year-old former Oklahoma State player from Sweden who has never won a professional event, grabbed the first-round lead with a seven-under par, 65.
“I started off solid and ended even better,” Lindberg said. “The whole day it was pretty steady. I was never in too much trouble. Sure, I was in the rough a few times and had to make a couple of good up-and-downs around the greens, but I never put myself under too much stress. Rolled in a few good putts and just gave myself a lot of good chances.”
One stroke back with rounds of 66 are Ayako Uehara, a 34-year-old from Japan, who has also never won on the LPGA, and Beatriz Recari, a 30-year-old Spaniard who got the last of her three LPGA wins in 2013. Two strokes off the lead are Albane Valenzuela, a 20-year-old amateur from Switzerland who plays at Stanford University; Jessica Korda and Ha Na Jang. At 4-under par is a star-studded group that includes Lexi Thompson, 40-year-old Cristie Kerr, a two-time major winner, Sung Hyun Park, last year’s Rolex Rookie of the Year and co-Player of the Year; former U.S. Women’s Open champion In Gee Chun, Chella Choi and Brittany Altomare.
A TRADITION UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Spain’s Beatriz Recari fired a 6-under 66 on Thursday in the first round of the ANA Inspiration, her best career round at the season’s first major. Despite missing the cut in four of her previous seven starts, Recari loves how Mission Hills sets up for her game.
“It’s not just a straight-forward golf course. Sometimes you play other major championships that changes every year, and the courses change every year. So benefit more longer hitters and some more of a ball striker. I feel like this one fits my game overall,” she said with optimism.
The three-time LPGA winner has not had a win since the 2013 Marathon Classic presented by Owens Corning & O-I, but still likes her chances to win her first major championship at the ANA Inspiration.
“I felt like if I was going to win a major, it was going to be on this course,” Recari said. “I think that it really suits my game, and definitely really feels like our Masters. There is so much tradition, and the course is always in pristine condition, and it’s the height of the tee, so there is a lot that you have to have very sharp in your game for this week, yeah.”
AMATEUR WON’T TAKE CHANCE FOR GRANTED
Switzerland’s Albane Valenzuela (-5, T3) is appearing in her sixth LPGA tournament and second ANA Inspiration this week after winning Low Amateur honors in 2016, where she finished T65. The 20-year-old, who plays collegiately at Stanford, was disappointed not to have played this event last year after being involved in a bike accident in Palo Alto that led to a concussion, four broken teeth, stitches in her nose, a busted hand and a partial tear in her patella that made it difficult to walk.
“It meant so much,” Valenzuela said of being back at Mission Hills. “I’m so grateful to be back here. Definitely last year I was really bummed not to be there. I played well two years ago, so I really wanted to come back. Not getting the shot last year was obviously a Bummer. But getting the experience back this year is amazing. I have no words.”
Valenzuela, who fired a career-low round of 66 on Thursday, leads the pack of seven amateurs playing in the season’s first major championship this week.
Pernilla Lindberg is playing in her seventh ANA Inspiration; her best finish is T18 in 2016
Lindberg’s first-round 65 is her best round at the ANA Inspiration; she previously shot a 66 in the third round in 2016
This is the first time Lindberg has been in the lead following any round at a major; her best career major finish is T5 at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open
Lindberg is looking for the first victory of her nine-year LPGA career; four players became Rolex First-Time Winners at the ANA Inspiration – Helen Alfredsson (1993), Nanci Brown (1995), Morgan Pressel (2007) and Stacy Lewis (2011)
Lindberg is trying to join Helen Alfredsson and Annika Sorenstam as players from Sweden to win the ANA Inspiration; Alfredsson won in 1993, while Sorenstam took the title in 2002 and 2005
Beatriz Recari is playing in her eighth ANA Inspiration; her best finish is T25 in 2013
Ayako Uehara is playing in her sixth ANA Inspiration; her best finish is T19 in 2013, her tournament debut
2013 LPGA rookie Uehara is a three-time winner on the JLPGA, and has two top-10 finishes in her LPGA career
Recari and Uehara both returned first-round 66s for their career lowest rounds at the ANA Inspiration by three strokes; Recari shot a 69 in the fourth round in 2012, while Uehara carded a 69 in the third round in 2017
Amateur Albane Valenzuela carded a first-round 67, which is the second-lowest round ever returned by an amateur at the ANA Inspiration; Caroline Keggi (third round, 1988) and Michelle Wie (third round, 2003) both returned rounds of 66
Valenzuela is making her sixth career LPGA start this week; her five previous starts all came in major championships, with a career-best T65 finish at the 2016 ANA Inspiration
Valenzuela is Switzerland’s No. 1 golfer and finished T21 representing her country at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games