INDUSTRY HILLS, Calif.» Fresh off final exams at Stanford, Hawaii’s Michelle Wie cruised through her first domestic golf test of the year yesterday at the Kia Classic.
The Punahou graduate buried five birdie putts on the back nine to shoot 5-under-par 68 at Industry Hills Golf Club, just outside of Los Angeles. She is alone in third, behind Amanda Blumenherst (66) and Sandra Gal (67), going into this morning’s second round.
No one else broke 70 on opening day.
Wie tees off at 5:45 a.m. Hawaii time. Hilo’s Kimberly Kim, who birdied the first two holes and the last to shoot 75, goes out 40 minutes earlier.
The LPGA hadn’t played on this course since Sally Little won in 1981 and ’82. She finished at 4 under both years and Industry Hills long, hilly, tight and, this week, very wet was deemed too difficult.
Not for some.
Blumenherst, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur champ, birdied the final four holes. Gal, the 2003 German girls champ, had six straight birdies around the turn.
And 68 might have been the worst Wie could have shot. She missed five putts from inside 10 feet on the front nine. She made up for that on the back with a bunch of brilliant iron shots that got her so close she almost couldn’t miss.
She backed up her approach shot on the 10th to 3 feet and got it to stop immediately on the 11th at the same distance. Those birdie putts put her in third, and brought The Golf Channel and Kia Motors America president Byung Mo Ahn out to follow every swing.
It wasn’t as if she was lonely. While the groups around her had a few spectators, Wie had a few hundred. When she got it going on the back, that multiplied, with everyone bundled up in long pants, jackets, a couple of mink coats and gloves. The temperature never hit 60.
"Cold," said Wie, who never unzipped her jacket. "It was very cold out there."
She, however, was just getting hot.
Wie flew the green on the par-3 13th and took bogey, but bounced back on the next hole when she got a pitching wedge to land 6 feet past the hole and roll 3 feet below. She drained a 20-footer on the 16th, then blasted a 3-wood 240 yards to the green on the par-5 18th and two-putted for birdie.
It was over, almost 6 hours after it started.
"I guess I was just being patient," Wie said. "You’re not going to play fast today. You’re not going to be warm. So just kind of accepting those facts and having fun.
"Naturally I’m quite an impatient person, so it’s always a work in progress to try to be patient. I’m still working at it."
For someone who qualified for her first USGA event at 10, won the Hawaii State Open women’s title by 13 shots at 13, became the youngest USGA Open champ the next summer and came within a shot of making the cut on the PGA Tour at 14, it was weird to hear Wie talk about patience.
But she is 21 now, a part-time senior student at Stanford and a two-time LPGA champ. Maybe she has mellowed with all that age.
She hit 16 greens in regulation and missed only three fairways yesterday. Her lone shaky statistic was 30 putts, which only emphasizes what more was possible.
"I think the greens are pretty tricky here," Wie shrugged. "It was hard to read a couple of them."
She should have three more days to get it down. This is her first tournament since she was second in Thailand and 40th in Singapore a month ago. Since then it has been solid schoolwork, which skidded to a halt with last week’s finals.
"I think I played a lot better today than I did on my finals," Wie said, then grinned.
Dori Carter, who played in the final group, elected not to finish at 7:30 last night because it was too dark. She is at 3 over and will putt out this morning on the ninth hole.