Jeong Jang leads, Wie shoots a 69
Michelle Wie made sure she didn’t get too far ahead of herself in her first tournament round of the year.
Telling herself to “stay in the present,” Wie shot a 3-under 69 in the Fields Open on Thursday to finish five strokes behind first-round leader Jeong Jang.
Showing virtually no signs of the wrist injuries that plagued her last year, Wie broke 70 for the first time since the Evian Ladies Masters in July 2006, a tournament where she tied for second and earned her largest LPGA Tour check.
“You know, I don’t really feel like I have to prove myself to anyone,” she said. “I just was really proud of myself today that I didn’t think about anything but just playing. I just played today.”
Jang, the 2005 British Open champion, opened with an 8-under 64, making nine birdies in a spectacular 16-hole stretch. Paula Creamer shot a 66, birdieing the last three holes for a 5-under 31 on the back nine.
Annika Sorenstam, trying to complete a Hawaiian sweep after winning at the season-opening SBS Open at Turtle Bay for her 70th LPGA Tour title, opened with a 70.
The wide-open layout at Ko Olina was defenseless for most of the day, perfect for Wie to start the year with a good round.
“It felt a lot better out there. I felt like I accomplished my goal of staying in the present,” she said.
The 18-year-old Wie looked relaxed and seemed to gain more confidence with each shot, playing on her home island of Oahu in front of a familiar gallery that ballooned as she moved up the leaderboard. She demonstrated a solid short game, putting just 23 times, and was still a little shaky off the tees.
She used her driver just twice on her front side, on the par 5s. She pulled it out five times on the back nine.
The crowd cheered every birdie and offered encouraging words at every hole.
“I basically knew like half of the gallery members,” said Wie, who hasn’t been back since graduating from high school last May. “It’s nice to play in front of your friends and family.”
She also was followed by her entourage that included her enthusiastic parents, swing coach David Leadbetter and two handlers from the William Morris Agency, including Matthew Shin, a former Stanford golfer and the newest addition to Team Wie.
“Today was obviously a confidence booster,” Wie said. “Like I said, my goal is just to slowly get back into it. Today was a very positive round for me, and I’m just going to keep staying in the present, not getting too far ahead.”
Or as Wie put it, just, “groove along.”
The Stanford freshman was in the first group off the 10th tee and made her move after the turn. She birdied four of five holes to take the lead at 4 under.
Wie split the fairway with a booming drive on par-5 first, just one of six fairways she hit all day. She then hit a wedge to 2 feet to set up a birdie.
She enthusiastically shook her first after dropping a 4-footer for another birdie on the next hole. Wie made a difficult downhill putt from 15 feet for birdie on her 13th hole and missed an eagle try from 25 feet from the fringe on the following hole.
Wie got into a little trouble in the sand late, finishing bogey-par-birdie-bogey. With one foot in the sand and the other on the grass, her shot out of the bunker on the par-4 sixth sailed across the green, 25 yards from the pin. She made a 10-footer for bogey.
On her final hole, she drove left into the bunker and her second shot fell way short of the green, circled by fans packed five deep. She just missed a 10-foot par putt, the only makable putt she missed all day.
Jang, meanwhile, dropped almost everything she touched. She was dominant from tee to green, putting on a clinic with her wedges, which set up a string of four 1-foot birdies in the middle of the round.
“I made almost every putt, seems like, so I had a really good round,” she said.
The 27-year-old South Korean did miss an easy 3-foot par putt top open the round, followed by four straight birdies and another on No. 17 to make the turn at 4 under.
“That (bogey) woke me up,” she said.
Jang caught Creamer with a 1-foot birdie putt on the par-5 fifth and cruised right past her. Jang hit a 7-iron to 10 feet on No. 6 and hit the same club off the tee on the par-3 eighth to set up a 15-foot birdie putt.
She’s coming off a strong year, surpassing $1 million in earnings, despite failing to win for the first time in three years. She had nine top-10 finishes to finish seventh on the money list and lost in a playoff to Natalie Gulbis in the Evian Masters.
Like Wie, Creamer also started on No. 10 and tore through her back nine behind her irons. Her longest birdie was a 35-foot putt on the par-4 third. The rest were between 6 to 10 feet.
“The biggest thing for me was just my confidence in my putting,” Creamer said.
Kelli Kuehne and Angela Stanford shot 67s, and rookie Liz Janangelo, Hee-Won Han and Se Ri Pak were among the several players at 68.
On Tuesday, Wie said she has accepted that her injured wrists will never be 100 percent again but are as good as they can be. Both wrists were injured last year but Wie kept playing, and struggling. She made only three cuts. In nine starts, she withdrew twice and only broke par twice in 19 rounds against women.
Wie has played well at Ko Olina, missing a playoff by a shot in the inaugural event in 2006.
She remembers that tournament clearly. But 2007 is out of her mind.
“I don’t really want to … remember last year,” she said. “I felt like moving forward from today.”
She is starting the season against the women for the first time in five years. She previously opened at the PGA Tour’s Sony Open where she nearly made the cut as a 14-year-old when she shot a 68. She wasn’t invited to play Waialae this year.