Lee-Anne Pace made a two-putt birdie on the final hole on Thursday in fading daylight for a bogey-free five-under-par 66 and the first-round lead in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey.
Two-time major winner Brooke Henderson of Canada and Ruoning Yin and Xiyi Lin of China were a shot back as Baltusrol’s historic Lower Course yielded 16 under-par rounds to the field of 156 players.
The 42-year-old Pace won her lone LPGA Tour title in 2014 in China. She’s playing in her second event in the United States this year. “At my age, the darkness isn’t your friend,” said Pace after her round which only finished after 8pm. “But I felt very comfortable on the greens. I made a really good putt on I think it was 15, massively slopey, very quick putt. That was a huge bonus.”
Her putting was one of the reasons she got herself into the lead: “The putter worked, which was awesome,” she said. “Hit my driver pretty straight, as well. Most of the greens we went for the middle, didn’t really attack too many pins. Quite a lot of the pins were on a few slopes that went into the rough, so we kept it on the high side and just stayed patient out there.”
It hasn’t been a great year for Pace so far, but she found the challenging Baltusrol very much to her liking. “I haven’t had the best season in Europe, mainly because I didn’t practice hard enough if I have to be completely honest. I started practicing for ShopRite, that event, a lot more. I just spent a lot more time out there, and I’m feeling super confident in my game.
“When we played this course in the practice rounds, I immediately said it suits my game because I’m pretty straight off the tee usually and my iron play is pretty accurate.”
Pace, who has played the championship six times, with a best finish of a share of 62nd, was relishing her time at the top of the leaderboard. “I feel really good about my round,” she said. “I feel very good that I’m so patient out there and calm, which is fantastic. But obviously to come out here and play against the best in the world and post a score like that is going to be something I’ll never forget.”
She’s also something of an anomaly atop a leaderboard crammed with players in their early 20s. Wichanee Meechair of Thailand was alone at 68. Leona Maguire of Ireland, the winner last week in Michigan, was at 69 with Ayaka Furue and Yuka Saso of Japan, Jenny Shin of South Korea, Celine Borge of Norway and Esther Henseleit of Germany. Rose Zhang, the two-time NCAA individual champion at Stanford who became the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA Tour event in her pro debut this month at nearby Liberty National, opened with a 70.
South African Paula Reto opened with a level-par 71 for a share of 17th, and Ashleigh Buhai was on two-over in a share of 44th.