U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Europeans Find Charleston Hospitable in Early Going May 30, 2019 | Charleston, S.C. By Ron Sirak

Germany's Esther Henseleit fired a 5-under 66 on Thursday, putting her close to the top of the leader board after Round 1. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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All week, the pre-championship chatter that hung in the hot South Carolina air was that the Country Club of Charleston was a good fit for European players. That knockdown shot in the wind and those bump-and-run plays around the green will come in handy here, said the wise heads who know the course and the demands of the U.S. Women’s Open.

Beth Daniel, who grew up playing the club, was one who touted the Europeans, as did Meg Mallon, a two-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Open. Maybe it’s coincidence or perhaps it’s chemistry, but Daniel and Mallon looked like not only World Golf Hall of Fame players but also all-world prognosticators after Thursday’s first round.

Sitting in second place after opening with a 66, one stroke behind Mamiko Higa of Japan, is 20-year-old Esther Henseleit of Germany. Another stroke back at 67 is Celine Boutier of France, with Spain’s Azahara Munoz at 68, the low round of the afternoon wave, and her countrywoman Carlota Ciganda at 69. Caroline Masson of Germany is at 1-under-par 70.

“I think it fits the European players very well,” Daniel said on the eve of the championship. And Mallon added: “All the Europeans I've talked to love this golf course. It feels like what they played at home. The creativity around the greens, I think, fits into their style of play.”

While the South Carolina heat was much more American than European, the challenging green complexes of the Seth Raynor design and even the gusting wind seemed to make some hopefuls for this year’s Solheim Cup team from Europe feel right at home.

Four of the five Europeans under par after the first round – Boutier, Munoz, Ciganda and Masson – have the best of both worlds since they’ve also gained experience on American courses by playing college golf in the United States.

The fifth member of this European union – Henseleit – is making a splash in her first year on the Ladies European Tour with six top-10 finishes in seven starts. And Henseleit almost didn’t get a chance to head across the Atlantic, getting into the field as the first alternate after losing a playoff in a qualifier in England.

“Back at the qualifier in London, I was doing really well, and then I played some stupid bogeys in the end and lost in the playoff, and I felt like, OK, there's no chance I could play there, and it was really sad,” Henseleit said.

When the unexpected news arrived, the furthest thing from her mind was that she’d be answering questions about being near the lead after the first round of the Women’s Open.

“When I got the message, like maybe a week and a half ago, and, of course, I couldn't imagine to sit here and do that good,” Henseleit said. “I mean, I played quite good this year, and I gained a lot of confidence on the Ladies European Tour,” she said after her five-birdie, no bogey round.

Then, after digesting her situation, she added: “Yeah, it's good to be here.”

Boutier, 25, who played at Duke and picked up her first LPGA win earlier this year at the ISPS Handa Vic Open, started slowly, going out in even-par 36. But then she caught fire and played the final seven holes 4 under par to return in 31.

“It was just hard to get it close on some of the pin positions,” Boutier said. “I only missed one fairway, so that helped a lot. And then I hit a lot of greens, so that was very helpful. I haven't really had a very good record in majors,” she said about missing the cut in both of her previous Women’s Opens, in 2014 and 2015.

Ciganda, 28, who has finished in the top five 13 times without winning since her last LPGA victory late in 2016, played the first round the way she’s been playing the last few years – extremely reliably.

“I think I've been very consistent,” she said. “Hit a lot of fairways. Hit the driver really good. I hit lots of greens as well, 15 greens. So very happy with that. I didn't make many mistakes.”

And playing mistake-free golf is certainly a key to winning a USGA championship.

“The course, it was a little more windy than I thought in the morning, so it was playing tough,” Ciganda said. “My nature is playing aggressive, and I like that. And I think once I'm 2 under, want to get to 3. Once I'm 3, I want to get to 4. That's what I always try. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.”

The best of the European bunch was the biggest surprise, the least known and least accomplished of the quartet. Now the question is how Henseleit will handle the second round no longer an unknown but rather a name on the leader board at the U.S. Women’s Open.

And that’s a large part of the total examination of this championship. On Thursday, the Europeans lived up to their pre-championship hype. Now they have to prove they can do it three more times.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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