By Brian Keogh
Jordanstown's Stephanie Meadow was tied 13th after a one-under 69 and Leona Maguire joint 46th after a 72 as AIG Women’s Open champion Sophia Popov fired a six-under 64 to lead the inaugural Pelican Women’s Championship in Florida.
It was a first career 18-hole LPGA Tour lead for Popov, whose career-low round gave her a two-stroke advantage over South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai.
Popov turned in six-under par 29 on the front nine, making five straight birdies from the fifth before mixing two birdies with two bogeys on the back nine.
“I think the way it usually happens is that you’re not thinking, and I think that’s what was happening,” Popov said laughingly. “The putter was pretty hot and I wanted to keep giving myself chances. I felt comfortable on the greens. I wasn’t really thinking about the streak, but looking back I saw my scorecard on the leaderboard and was like, ‘Wow, that’s even better than I anticipated.’”
With gusts exceeding 20 mph in round one and Pelican Golf Club featuring large greens with quite a bit of undulation, Popov was quickly transported back to her victory three months ago at Royal Troon Golf Club.
“I like playing in the wind. I was looking forward to a windy week, and I think it brings the best out of my game,” said Popov. “I think it makes you be a little more creative around the greens.
“With them being so big, there are many different shots you can hit. I really enjoy that and I think that is where I compare it to the Women’s Open, where you’re kind of putting from off the green quite a bit. Just used the wind to my advantage instead of fighting it all day. I think I did a good job of that.”
In a tie for third is the most recent LPGA Tour champion, Ally McDonald, who won the LPGA Drive On Championship—Reynolds Lake Oconee last month and 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner Sei Young Kim. Both players carded a 3-under par 67 in the first round.
“Honestly, my ball striking wasn’t that great, so I felt like my timing was just a little off,” said McDonald, who found her way to four birdies. “My misses were so that I had really good opportunities to get up and down. Putter is what kept me in it today and a solid round going. Hopefully, I can swing it just a little bit better tomorrow.”
This is the first start for Kim since capturing the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship crown in early October. Following her win at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., Kim ventured back home to her native Republic of Korea. She was greeted by her parents at Incheon International Airport, spent two weeks in quarantine before enjoying some celebrations with friends and family, and then it was back to Dallas to prepare for the Pelican Women’s Championship.
“Right after KPMG I went back to Korea and my whole family came to the airport. When I see my mom and dad, I was almost crying. It was very emotional,” said Kim. “I had to stay in the house, and spend a lot of time with family, a little bit of party. Then after quarantine hanging out with friend. Beer and wine, everything, yeah. It was really happy to spend time with them.”
A total of eight players are tied for fifth after 18 holes including five-time LPGA Tour winner Minjee Lee and Brooke Henderson, the winningest Canadian in golf history with nine titles. Meanwhile, Yu Liu was disqualified for failure to sign her scorecard.
Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging and Konica Minolta, Pelican Golf Club | Belleair, Fla. | Nov. 19-22, 2020
Course Setup: 35-35—70; 6,300 yards (R1 Scoring Average: 72.204)
Weather: Breezy conditions with east-northeasterly winds and gusts up to 21 mph. Partly cloudy in the morning becoming overcast in the afternoon. Temperatures started off a chilly 57 degrees and warmed into the low 70s by the afternoon.
Player To Par Score
1 Sophia Popov -6 64
2 Ashleigh Buhai -4 66
T3 Ally McDonald -3 67
T3 Sei Young Kim -3 67
BUHAI STAYS FRESH COMPETING AGAINST FELLOW SOUTH AFRICANS
Ashleigh Buhai said she’s feeling as confident as ever in her career, and it showed during the first round of the Pelican Women’s Championship. In her last four events, Buhai has recorded two top six finishes, including a second-place performance at the Cambia Portland Classic where she lost in a playoff to Georgia Hall.
Even though she opened Thursday at Pelican Golf Club with a bogey on No. 2, Buhai rebounded, playing bogey-free the rest of the way and recording five birdies en route to a 66. She credits not only her team, but the ability to be patient, as she works to be in contention once again.
“I feel very comfortable where I am right now. I feel my coach and I have got my game to where I'm very consistent, and as long as I stay patient, I'm going to have that one or two good weeks and hopefully pull one out soon,” said Buhai, currently in solo second and two shots behind leader Sophia Popov.
Buhai stayed in West Palm Beach during the LPGA Tour’s three-week hiatus and put in the work, playing against fellow South Africans Erik Van Rooyen and Branden Grace of the PGA TOUR to stay fresh. She said she usually bounces back and forth between the United States and South Africa, but COVID-19 has put a stop to those transatlantic flights for her and her husband David Buhai, a LPGA Tour caddie. They hope to relocate to the U.S. next spring.
“My husband and I are looking to relocate, so that's one of the areas we are thinking about going,” said Buhai. “Just spent some time down [in Jupiter, Fla.] to see if we like it. It was nice. We've got to see what we're going to do.”
INJURY, CHANGE IN CADDIE CAN’T SLOW DOWN JODI EWART SHADOFF
A few weeks ago, Jodi Ewart Shadoff sprained her sacroiliac joint while unplugging a charger from the wall. “Not even a fun story,” said the Englishwoman. Before coming to Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging and Konica Minolta, she took three weeks off to heal and eased back into practice form while doing physical therapy.
“This is the first time I've walked 18 holes since KPMG [Women’s PGA Championship],” said Ewart Shadoff, who recorded a first-round 68 on Thursday at Pelican Golf Club. “Just started with short game and then kind of gradually hit one more club every day and worked myself up. I didn't try to rush back or anything. I've probably been practising for the last two weeks or so.”
Ewart Shadoff, who sits in a tie for fifth at -2 after day one, is back with Symetra Tour player and friend Holly Clyburn on the bag. She said Clyburn will caddie for her in each of the next three events as well. The last time the two joined up was at the LPGA Tour’s restart in Toledo, where Ewart Shadoff finished fifth at the LPGA Drive On Championship—Inverness Club and in a tie for second at the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana.
“You know, we have a lot of fun out there,” Ewart Shadoff said. “She's very positive and a great green reader. It really helps me. So, yeah, it's a lot of fun.”
WITH NEW PERSPECTIVE, JAYE MARIE GREEN THANKFUL TO BE COMPETING
An opening-round 2-under par 68 at the inaugural Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging and Konica Minolta was a solid start for Jaye Marie Green, but it didn’t make or break her day.
The Florida native is simply thankful to be competing again after a major accident on May 28.
“During quarantine there wasn’t really much to do, so I got one of those electric bikes because I saw a lot of people in my community with them. It’s a normal bike but with a little throttle and they go close to 30 mph,” said Green, who was raised in Boca Raton but moved to Jupiter earlier this year. “I was going to dinner in the bike lane and then the road was under construction, so there was no bike lane. It was like dotted lines and I was trying to stay as close to the curb as possible.
“I looked to the right, hit the curb which knocked me off balance and I shifted to the left to save myself and almost got hit by a car. Then I flew off the bike, slammed my shoulder, face, knees and ended up fracturing my elbow. Also slammed my head and got a concussion. It was a 10-week recovery.”
Without a doubt, Green believes that angels were looking over her that day. It helped shape a renewed sense of faith for the seven-year LPGA Tour professional.
“What if I did hit the car? I was very blessed and fortunate but the fracture I had in my elbow was not good for golf. The doctors were really worried about what the future held because I couldn’t straighten it past like a 90-degree angle. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to fully extend it,” Green said. “A couple of months ago is when I started going to [Christ Fellowship] Church and everything really changed for me.
“When I was able to start hitting balls again, I came out with the expectation to win. Of course you care and if you don’t play well it’s going to hurt but it shouldn’t be devastating or make you feel like a terrible person. That’s what golf was doing to me. I told myself that I can’t live this way, making golf No. 1 in life. I moved it a little further down the list to three or four and I’ll always have one [Jesus] and two [family].”
ACE FOR THOMPSON
An 11-time LPGA Tour champion and three-time Solheim Cup Team USA member, Lexi Thompson made the 10th hole-in-one of the 2020 LPGA Tour season as she found the bottom of the cup on No. 3 with a 9-iron from 165 yards.
“Hit a full 9-iron and it was kind of flagged right off the face,” said Thompson, who carded a 1-over par 36 on the front nine which included the ace. “I kind of went off [the reaction from] a guy behind the green and he put his hands up. I couldn’t tell if it went in or not. Even though there was only about 10 or so people that saw it, still a good feeling for me.”
For that ace, CME Group will donate $20,000 to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. The 2020 season has now seen 10 aces for a total of $200,000 donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“Having two in the last year and [to help in] donating that much money to St. Jude’s Hospital means the world to me,” Thompson said. “It’s not only helping my scorecard, but it is helping the world and these kids. We’re not just athletes who play well in our sport; we want to give back. I think it’s a great idea of what they’re doing.”
Thompson ultimately shot an even-par 70 on the day and is tied for 22nd.
Rolex Rankings No. 28 Sophia Popov (64)
Her first-round 64 is a career low and matches her best score to par of 6-under par 66 which she recorded three times in 2015 (JTBC Founders Cup, Manulife LPGA Classic and Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic)
She hit 13 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens, with 24 putts
This is Popov’s sixth event of the 2020 LPGA Tour season; she has not missed a cut and her top finish is a win at the AIG Women’s Open in August
Qualified for the 2020 AIG Women’s Open with a T9 finish at the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana
Started the year with only Symetra Tour membership; she matched a career-best result on the “Road to the LPGA” with a runner-up finish at the Founders Tribute in August
Made 13 cuts across 13 starts on the Symetra Tour in 2019 with season-best of fourth at the IOA Golf Classic
Member of the 2013 NCAA Division I National Championship team with the University of Southern California
Finished T11 at the 2014 LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament to first earn LPGA Tour membership as a 2015 rookie