Marina Alex grimaced as she watched a 6-foot birdie putt slide past the hole on the ninth green on Thursday. It was about the only thing that didn’t go right for the 24-year-old from Wayne, N.J., in the first round of the weather-delayed 2015 U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club.
Despite the miss, which came on her final hole, Alex, a second-year LPGA Tour player who turned professional in 2012, posted a 4-under 66 on the 6,353-yard layout. That was good enough for a share of the first-round lead with two-time champion and Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, of Australia.
Due to a late-afternoon thunderstorm, play was suspended for the day at 6:03 p.m. EDT. The first round is scheduled to resume on Friday at 6:45 a.m., followed by the start of Round 2 at 7:15 a.m. Fifty-five golfers were still on the course when play was halted.
Amy Yang, the runner-up in 2012, was one stroke back of the co-leaders at 67, with six other players, including 2005 co-runner-up Morgan Pressel and 2012 USA Curtis Cup competitor Austin Ernst, in a group at 68. World No. 3 Stacy Lewis carded a 69, while world No. 2 Lydia Ko, seeking her first major to go with seven LPGA Tour victories, had a 70. Defending champion Michelle Wie carded a 2-over 72.
World No. 1 and two-time champion Inbee Park was among those still on the course. She was 2 under through 14 holes. Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 champion, was at 3 under through 14 holes along with Jane Park, the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Park has five holes remaining.
Those in the morning wave got a break, with overnight rains softening the course and a dearth of wind leading to ideal scoring conditions as 11 golfers bettered par. As the storm approached in the afternoon, the winds stiffened, making the challenging layout even tougher.
Webb’s 66 was her first sub-70 round at a Women’s Open in 14 years, when she won the second of her back-to-back national championships at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C. She was the lone player in the field to hit all 14 fairways, and she was joined in hitting 17 of 18 greens in regulation by Alex.
“I think the course is there to shoot scores like that,” said Webb, who is competing in her 20th consecutive U.S. Women’s Open. “You've got to play well. The greens are soft.”
The 66 by Alex matched her lowest score of the season and marked her second start in a U.S. Women’s Open. She posted 82-78 in missing the cut six years ago as an 18-year-old amateur at Saucon Valley Country Club in nearby Bethlehem, Pa. Alex is a far different player now, having matured through a four-year collegiate career at Vanderbilt and two seasons on the Symetra Tour. She finished No. 65 on the LPGA Tour money list last year to become exempt for the Women’s Open.
“The USGA set it up really well today,” said Alex, who says in her LPGA Tour bio that she grew up idolizing Webb. “This morning it was wet, because we had a little rain. And I felt how they set up the holes as far as length and hole locations was really, really good.”
Webb, of course, has been good for a long time. To put her career in perspective, Alex was not quite 5 years old when Webb claimed the first of her 41 LPGA Tour victories at the 1995 Ricoh Women’s British Open. Since then, Webb has won seven majors, including her consecutive U.S. Women’s Opens.
Alex, a former two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year (2010 and 2012) and first-team All-American (2010 and 2012), is still seeking her first professional win. At one point this season, she missed five consecutive cuts before finally seeing some positive results in her last two starts, including a tie for ninth two weeks ago at the Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship.
“She just needed that tournament to gain some confidence because she’s been hitting it really well the six weeks I’ve worked with her,” said Meaghan Francella, a Tour-player-turned-caddie who starting teaming with Alex at the Kingsmill Championship in mid-May after working two events with her last year. “It was just a matter of seeing a couple of putts go in.”
Alex and Francella, a five-time U.S. Women’s Open competitor from Port Chester, N.Y., made a pre-championship visit to Lancaster in May and instantly loved the layout. It reminded Alex of the courses she played growing up, particularly her home club, North Jersey Country Club.
Through the partnership with Francella and instructor Ian Triggs, whom she began working with six months ago, Alex has seen her game rise.
On Thursday, she missed only one fairway and one green in a five-birdie, one-bogey effort. That included a birdie from 18 feet on the difficult 205-yard eighth.
“Yeah, a lot of things have fallen together,” said Alex, who had several friendly faces from New Jersey in her gallery. “I've been working on my swing, and I have my caddie, who is absolutely awesome. I love her. She’s helped me out so much. It's little things here and there … and it's kind of showing right now, which is great.”
Given the soft conditions and the amount of uphill shots required on the William Flynn design, longer hitters were seen to have an advantage. Alex, who typically drives the ball 245-250 yards, doesn’t overpower courses, but her ball striking overcame any distance disadvantages.
“I tell you what, this 5-wood is never coming out of the bag,” said Francella. “We hit a lot of 5-woods today. On the par-3 eighth and the last one on No. 9 [from 196 yards out].
“The early part of the week she wasn’t hitting it that great and I said, ‘Marina, just be patient and when Thursday comes around you will start flushing it.’ Four under at a U.S. Open. You’ll take that and run. I’m proud of her.”
Webb had the kind of day that wins U.S. Women’s Opens, finding every fairway and hitting all but one green. She started with 10 consecutive pars before knocking her approach on the par-4 second to 3 feet for a birdie. She posted three more birdies for an outward-nine 31.
“I feel like I've had some good golf in me,” said Webb, who is coming off three top-10s in her last six starts, including a tie for seventh behind Inbee Park at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the year’s second major. “Inbee [Park] just played unbelievable and ran away with it. And I felt good coming into [this week]. I’m just trying not to set the expectations too high [and] put too much pressure on myself.”
With her legacy clearly cemented, Webb was asked what keeps her motivated. Next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is a goal, and a third Women’s Open title would elevate Webb into select company with Annika Sorenstam, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Hollis Stacy, just one behind all-time leaders Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright.
“I could probably guess at who's won more majors, but I can tell you I've never looked,” said Webb. “I know Patty Berg has the most [with 15], that's probably the number that I know. But that's never been a goal of mine. I'm just happy to get off to a good start and hopefully continue to play this good for the next three days.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.