CHARLESTON, S.C. — Alexa Pano is not likely to win this week’s U.S. Women’s Open. In fact, she will be hard-pressed to make the cut. That’s the position she finds herself in after shooting a 4-over-par 75 on a day Japan’s Mamiko Higa shot a 65 and 12 others finished in the 60s. There’s a lot of ground to make up.
Then again, Alexa Pano was a winner this week before she stepped to the first tee at 7:22 a.m. on Thursday at the Country Club of Charleston.
Alexa Pano is 14 years old.
Pano, the youngest player in the 156-player field, has been winning tournaments — well, forever, it seems. In 2013, at the age of 7 , she was one of eight young players featured in a documentary, “The Short Game,” produced by Justin Timberlake. You can catch it on Netflix.
She has played in LPGA events, U.S. Women’s Amateurs, U.S. Junior Amateurs and other high-profile tournaments.
Nothing, however, can top where she has played in 2019.
In early April, a week before the Masters, she took part in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Now this, the Open, which she qualified for by rolling in a 35-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole. She had been trying to qualify for the Open since she was 8, coming up short in her previous five attempts.
So after how hard she worked to arrive at this moment, you figure the girl had to be a little nervous standing on the first tee. If she was, she hid it well, sending her ball down the left side of the fairway. At 5-foot-10, she typically hits her drives about 260 yards.
“I’ve been in a lot of big events, especially the Augusta Women’s Am, and I learned a lot about calming myself in that,” she said. “Kind of pretty relaxed the whole day, honestly.”
Something in her swing, though, was off Thursday. She knew it. So did her father, Rick, who caddies for her. He could tell on the driving range. She didn’t hit her first green in regulation until the seventh hole.
Yet there was little they could do about it.
“One of the things we work on in practice that we weren’t able to do today is making adjustments,” Rick said. “You’re going to make bad swings. We knew exactly what she needed to be doing. We just didn’t do it.”
And yet, with a birdie at the ninth, Alexa stood at 1 under par. She was getting up and down, a huge key to success in any U.S. Open layout.
“Give her credit. She’s a tough kid,” Rick Pano said. “She scrambled. I’m sitting there, saying, ‘My God, if we can find a swing, we could go 5 under.’ ”
Things went a little sideways on the back nine, starting with a double-bogey on No. 10 that included a penalty stroke after her drive found a bush. On No. 11, an extremely challenging par 3, she made a bogey after being unable to get up and down from a bunker. Then came another bogey at 12.
From then on, except for a bogey at 14, she kept things together. At the par-3 17th, her tee shot hit the flag stick. But she missed a 16-footer.
Whatever did not work out in the opening round, Rick has no doubts about Alexa’s dedication.
“Back in February, we were at a range in Dallas with [swing coach] Chris O’Connell,” Rick said. “It’s 40 degrees out, and it’s pouring rain. She had been out there for three hours. Chris looked at her and said, ‘You want a break?’ She looked at him and goes, ‘No, do you?’ They stayed out there another 2½ hours.”
Rick, a single father — he and his wife divorced when Alexa was 10 months old — has been the driving force, in more ways than one. Based in Lake Worth, Fla., for much of the year, the two put on roughly 60,000 miles per year in leased cars.
Where the journey takes them in the years ahead is anyone’s guess. The sport has featured its share of teenagers with plenty of promise. Some have excelled. Some have not.
For Alexa, who is home-schooled, the goal is to make the LPGA Tour. As for college, Alexa does not have an answer.
“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” she said. “I have no idea. I’m a freshman in high school. Who knows?”