By Vince Robitaille
GolfWRX Staff Writer
While the first day of the inaugural Lotte Championship presented by J Golf showcased solid golf, things really kicked off on the regular American schedule or, simply put, on Thursday afternoon; Azhara Munoz coming back from a even-par opening lap with the round of the week, an 8-under 64, placing her in a tie for first with Japanese star, Ai Miyazato – the latter also going terribly low on the day with a 65. Opening round frontrunners, Christie Kerr and Suzann Pettersen, on their part, kept chipping away in order to stay within arm’s reach of the lead as Angela Stanford exploited her resourceful wind game to make a slight push.
On a gusty moving day, Munoz struggled to stay afloat, bogeys on the second and third holes dragging her down the leaderboard early. However, a mid-round rally, which would then be partly offsetted by a blemish on the par-3 16th, would net her a manageable 73; manageable since her aforementioned primary adversary, having to handle the rather harsh playing conditions, could only bring in a card of 70 for an aggregate score of 10-under. That being said, one actress would make a stunning early round push and set the table for what would be yet another lively final round on the LPGA Tour.
Meena Lee, coming back from a missed cut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, made consecutives birdies on second, third and fourth holes to position herself a lone stroke behind Miyazato, at 9-under; a stroke which would soon be obtained on the seventh hole. As both leaders were sitting comfortable at 10-under, Munoz, who kept on grinding through the first four holes much like she did the previous day, finally caught a break when she snuck in a slippery, cutting 20-plus footer for birdie on the par-4 7th to get back within two strokes of her rivals. After an average tee shot on No. 8, a 146-yard-long par-3 that left her on the lower tier of a tricky leveled green, the Spaniard managed to perfectly negotiate the harsh ascending contour leading to the difficult hole placement close to the plateau’s ridge to drain an improbably 30 footer and get to 10-under. On the subsequent hole, Miyazato would misjudge a thorny chip into a ridge to a low pin location from over the green, leaving herself a testy 12-foot putt to save par; a test that she would fail as the ball slipped to the right. The former World No.1 could only grind her teeth as she watched Munoz tap in for par to make the turn in 33, but most importantly in a tie for the lead with her irritated self.
Around the same time on the par-3 12th, Meena Lee sent her tee shot in the right frontside bunker and drew a rather nasty downhill lie (in comparison to what one would normally expect out of such a shot), but nothing near what she’d experience later on in the round). However, not willing to give up ground on the last pairing just yet, the South Korean proceeded to show off her sheer touch, landing her emblematic bright yellow ball in kick-in distance of the cup.
Over at No. 10, Munoz hit what looked like an above average three-fingered shot into the green only to be the victim of an upmost awkward bounce that sent her ball in the collection area that represents the front left bunker. Having effectively short-sided herself and facing a downhill lie in what strangely resembled a pot bunker – well, as close to it as you can find in Honolulu – the 2010 Rolex Rookie of the Year managed to get herself within 20 feet, one could difficulty expect much better out of such a situation. The result, the first blemish on her day and a cumulative score of 9-under. Miyazato, on the other hand, opted for what could be seen as a safer line into the green, frankly favoring the right portion of the green, which left her below the pin en route to two-putt par.
On the 11th, after a sup-par 3-wood off the tee, Munoz ignored what looked like a flyer lie to attack, rather aggressively, the rightward pin; quite skillfully squeezing the ball in the narrow 12-pace aperture that separated the fringe from the pin. Regrettably, she pulled the ball straight left on the ensuing putt and missed an ever important opportunity to get back in a tie for the lead. Miyazato, much like on the previous hole, played straight forward, by the book golf on her way to par; a mere formality really.
The par-3 12th saw Miyazato airmail a weak push fade that plugged, in the vast bunker bordering the right flank of the putting surface, about 14 yards away from the fringe. Meanwhile, Munoz hit a solid sawed off mid-iron to a safe spot on the left portion of the green’s lower tier before safely two-putting for par. Our Japanese protagonist was roughly penalized as her explosion shot out of the bunker flew miles past the putting surface. Her subsequent bump and run attempt was left a tad short, but not enough to keep her from salvaging a bogey which brought her back to 9-under in a tie for second with Munoz, a stroke behind Lee; for about 30 seconds that is. In fact, Lee who, after getting herself in trouble off the tee on the par-5 14th – the second of two straight par-5’s – and leaving herself enough distance, on her third shot, to be completely unable to attack the green, couldn’t save par.
On the par-5 13th, after laying up to a rather dangerous spot, putting the large front bunker between herself and the hole, 78 yards away from the pin, Munoz managed to land her trademark knockdown shot on the upper level of the green, a few yards above pin level with a slippery comebacker for birdie. Miyazato couldn’t achieve as good of a result, facing a downhill, down grain 30-footer for birdie. Well, qualifying her result as inferior would be ignoring her subsequent putt. Her trusty Odyssey White Ice Sabertooth in hand, Miyazato sunk the outrageously quick putt to shave off a stroke and get herself in first at 10-under; a feat matched, a mere minute away, by Meena Lee who converted her birdie attempt at the 15th. Speaking of the young Korean, having left her tee shot woefully short on the 193 yards par-3 16th, her disappointing effort was, quite fortunately, compensated by her bold negotiation of a right-to-left 10-footer; up-and-down, fist pump, no harm done, on to the next one.
As Miyazato breezed through the par-5 14th, Munoz found herself, after leaving her approach from the left side rough short, missing yet another putt on the low-side of the hole and falling back to 8-under, now two strokes behind the former No.1. Concurrently on the 17th hole, Mina Lee hit it high on the clubface from the rough and left herself short once more. Nevertheless, a crisp wedge to the elevated green helped her convert yet another crucial par.
The tournament’s faith was sealed on 15th. Miyazato, after finding the left fringe from 109 yards out, sunk an additional long-range putt in blatantly similar fashion to the one on 13th. In doing so, she’d get back to 11-under, never to be touched again; Meena Lee collapsing on the 18th – finding the sand on her third shot and three-putting on her way to a double bogey – and Munoz unable to close the three-shot gap which would widen to four following the Japanese’s birdie on 17th. The Spaniard would go close the championship with an aggregate score of 8-under, landing the Ping staffer her second career runner up finish – in a tie with Lee – the other coming at the 2011 Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.
On a side note, the Korda-Thompson-Wie confrontation which had most viewers intrigued, saw Korda getting the upper hand as the local favorite thoroughly struggled on her way to a third straight missed cut, as Lexi Thomson tumbled. Unfortunately, for the 2012 Australian Open champion, the fact that simply no putt seemed to be willing to go in on Thursday kept her from gaining the necessary momentum going into the weekend. Ultimately, Korda couldn’t fare better than a tie for 49th at 4-over.