With a gratifying birdie-birdie finish following a questionable course management decision that led to a bogey on her 16th hole, defending champion Annika Sorenstam was off to a comfortable start Thursday at the LPGA Championship in her quest to win a seventh career major title and attain her goal of prevailing in the three remaining majors on the 2004 schedule.
At the end of a humid, overcast day at the DuPont Country Club, there also were indications of a potential weekend duel between the same two players who finished one-two in this event a year ago. That would be Sorenstam and Korean-born Grace Park, the runner-up in 2003 after losing to the Swedish star in a sudden death one-hole playoff.
Park had an annoying bogey-bogey finish that left her tied with Sorenstam, both at 3-under 68 and two shots behind flamboyant first-round leader Jennifer Rosales, whose flashy headbands and a breakthrough first victory last month in Atlanta have made her a national hero back home in the Philippines. Rosales posted a 5-under 66 in the afternoon round and had a one-shot lead over England's Karen Stupples, Gloria Park (no relation to Grace) of South Korea, and Chiharu Yamaguchi of Japan, all at 67.
"My round was pretty smooth today," Rosales said. "I hit a lot of fairways, and that was the key. I missed a lot of putts. But I kept putting and putting until I made some and just kept going. . . . If I keep hitting the way I was hitting today, I could get up there."
Sorenstam could have been a shot closer herself when a well-struck 45-foot eagle putt at the 502-yard ninth hole -- her 18th of the day -- hit the cup and somehow stayed out. She had to settle for a birdie there after a 245-yard 4-wood second shot from the fairway -- "the hardest 4-wood I ever hit" -- bounded onto the putting surface.
Only 30 minutes earlier, Sorenstam struck one of the worst shots she'd ever hit. It came at the 391-yard No. 7 following a wayward dead-right drive into thick, deep grass on a sidehill lie with the ball above her feet. A tall oak blocked her path to the green, and most in the gallery who gathered around thought surely a woman not known for taking risks would merely pitch out sideways to the fairway and take her chances getting up and down for par with a wedge.
Instead, Sorenstam pulled out a 7-iron and aimed toward the green, protected by a bunker also in her path. The grass grabbed her club and the ball only advanced 30 yards, at least far enough to get beyond the tree. From there, she hit a sand wedge on to the green and two-putted from 30 feet for only the second bogey on her card.
"I was trying to hit a low hook," Sorenstam said of her second shot at the seventh, insisting that "I didn't have a lot of options. The grass was quite thick. I was thinking left [out into the fairway] but a branch was in the way. . . . My caddie suggested I try to hit it in the [greenside] bunker. It was a little risky play, but I figured at least I'd have a sand wedge [third] shot."
After her second shot, one fan yelled "that is so stupid, so stupid." Sorenstam was asked afterward if she'd heard him and she smiled and diplomatically shook her head no. Clearly though, the bogey there -- if not her vocal critic -- got her attention, because at the 192-yard No. 8, her 5-iron off the tee was perfectly struck. It soared high in the heavy air and landed inches from where it hit, about four feet from a pin tucked in the back right corner of the green. She made the birdie putt, then followed it up with that near-eagle birdie on her final hole.
"I'm very happy," she said. "I hit the ball well and hit a lot of lips. It's a good start, one of the better starts I've had at this tournament."
Grace Park, the only player in the field with a chance for a Grand Slam this year after winning the season's first major at the Kraft Nabisco, was also off to a brilliant start. She birdied three of her first four holes, was 4 under through eight and said she felt in complete control of her game until her two late bogeys spoiled the day, but hardly dimmed her will to win.
"This is not the finish I wanted to have," she said. "I'm certainly disappointed and frustrated at the same time, but that's golf, that's major championships. You can't miss a shot and expect to save par every time. But I played really solid today, really smart. It's only the first round. I was perfectly comfortable with where I was on each hole, and felt so good about my game over each shot that I didn't care what I was shooting or how I was shooting."
At least until the last two holes.
At the seemingly benign 156-yard 17th, Park punched her tee shot 6-iron into a bunker and left her sand shot 20 feet from the cup, missing the par putt. At the 399-yard 18th, which she bogeyed in the playoff against Sorenstam last year, her pulled 4-iron second shot left her with a poor lie. She chipped to 10 feet, and missed that putt, too, her third bogey on a six-birdie round.
"I always look at the score to see how everyone else is doing, but that doesn't have an impact on how I play," Park said. "I like to get aggressive and try to shoot as low as I can so I'm in good position for the weekend. I always like to be leading. Unfortunately, I'm not, but I'm very close. We've got 54 holes left."
Rosales had the day's only bogey-free round, and all five of her birdie putts came from 15 feet or closer. She said she couldn't recall leading an LPGA event, let alone a major championship, after the first round, and admitted, "the first day doesn't matter. I just want to keep playing, give myself chances for the weekend. We'll see what happens. I'm excited, actually."