Alison Walshe hits her tee shot on No. 8 in the first round of the Marathon Classic. Ranked 90th in the world, she one-putted 11 holes to lead by one stroke after the first round with a 6-under 65.
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Highlighting the top 10 scorers at the Marathon Classic after day one are a couple of past champions, the top player in the world, and arguably the tour’s biggest draw.
That’s the sort of news that should have Marathon Petroleum, the new title sponsor, feeling confident about its investment in the venerable LPGA tournament.
Thursday though was not about new event leadership or the absence of an iconic namesake or about the smattering of marquee players hovering atop the leaderboard. Nor was it — and spectators may disagree — about punishing temperatures that didn’t dip to below 90 until all golfers had cleared the course for the day.
Talk on this day circled around an unheralded Massachusetts native who has struggled of late with her putter but devoured the greens at Highland Meadows. Alison Walshe, ranked No. 90 in the world, needed only one putt to finish off 11 holes, taking an unlikely step to garnering her first tournament title since joining the tour three years ago. Walshe, who headlined a stellar first day for Americans, putted three times on the first hole but just 20 times the rest of the way to score 6-under 65.
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"I’ve been giving myself a lot of opportunities, and it’s frustrating that I haven’t been able to go deep and make some putts," said Walshe, who missed the cut last month at the U.S. Women’s Open and hasn’t finished better than tied for 17th this year.
Walshe was among 43 players to break par in an event that for the first time in its 28 years is no longer associated with former namesake Jamie Farr.
Among those to challenge Walshe will be three golfers one stroke back: 2008 winner and American Paula Creamer, fellow patriot Lexi Thompson, and nondescript Canadian Jessica Shepley. Among five golfers at 4-under is top-ranked Inbee Park, who has six wins and eight top-10 finishes in one of the most remarkable seasons in tour history.
Natalie Gulbis, whose productivity has struggled to match her popularity, is among six golfers and five Americans tied for 10th at 3-under.
Walshe, 28, a three-time NCAA All-American at Arizona, went through pains early in the week to fix a putter that has failed her of late. Her putting coach, Joe Hallett, is here and lectured her on some mechanical errors Walshe was making. The two of them the other day put together ideas for a news article to be released on putting.
And then ...
"I three-putted the first hole and I was like, ‘Here we go again,’" she said.
The next hole she recovered, converting from 10 feet for par. It may have been Walshe’s biggest putt of the day.
"That was clutch," she said. "It kind of got me back on track. Otherwise I think I would have been a little mentally off."
Walshe, who teed off at 8:20 a.m., nearly had to share her lead by the end of the day. Creamer, who will forever be celebrated here for the opening-round 60 she fired in 2008, narrowly missed a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to remain a stroke back. Creamer, who is seeking her first win this season, picked up three birdies on each side.
"I played pretty well all day, very consistent," she said. "I missed a couple coming down the stretch, but at the same time I kept giving myself opportunities."
Park and Ryu, who are among five South Koreans in the top 10 — the number is actually 18 because of nine ties for 10th — did not absorb a bogey. The so-called Seoul Sisters, a South Korean allegiance that also includes Haeji Kang (-4), Chella Choi (-3), and Eun-Hee Ji (-3), are attempting to earn their country a title at Highland Meadows for the fourth straight try.
Ryu, who a year ago ripped off six straight birdies on Sunday to win easily, admits to feeling pressure of being the defending champion.
"I cannot say there’s nothing," she said. "There’s definitely a little bit of pressure on me, but I’m a professional golfer so I should enjoy this attention."
Ryu played in a star-studded group also consisting of former golf prodigy Michelle Wie and Toledo native Stacy Lewis. Lewis, who a day earlier was announced the winner of the ESPY award for best female golfer, finished 1-under and is tied for 31st.
"I didn’t hit it the best today, but I made some putts and my putts have kind of been what’s gotten me the past few weeks," said Lewis, who had three birdies and two bogeys.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.