SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Lee-Anne Pace isn’t playing a lot of competitive golf these days at 42-years-old and her practice habits have tailed off. She enjoys the game, and every once in a while, the South African really enjoys it.
The first round of the Women’s PGA Championship at historic Baltusrol on Thursday was one of them.
Pace made a two-putt birdie on the final hole in fading daylight to cap a bogey-free 5-under 66 and grab a one-stroke lead after the opening round of the second major of the year in women's golf.
“Honestly, I just came over because I like to come over every now and then for one or two events,” Pace said. “I honestly did not expect to be leading the tournament after day one. It’s a very, very difficult golf course. To be in my position, I’m just really happy that I had a good score.”
Teeing off at 2:28 p.m., Pace made seven pars to start her round, then finished with five birdies in her final 11 holes, hitting the par-5 18th in two and getting down in two. She also made a key par save from the bunker at the par-3 16th.
She joked about the last birdie.
“Yeah, at my age, the darkness isn’t your friend,” said Pace, who turned pro in 2007 and has one win on the LPGA Tour, the Blue Bay event in China in 2014. “But like I said, I felt very comfortable on the greens.”
She’s playing in her second event in the United States this year. She tied for 30th two weeks ago at the ShopRite Classic near Atlantic City.
Two-time major winner Brooke Henderson of Canada and Ruoning Yin and Xiyi Lin of China were a shot back as Baltusrol's historic Lower Course yielded 16 under-par rounds to the field of 156 players.
Henderson, who won this event in 2016 and the Evian last year for her majors, had a bogey and five birdies, the last from about 35 feet on the ninth hole, her final one.
“Everything was working pretty well,” Henderson said. “I would like to hit a few more fairways tomorrow, but when I needed to I was able to get up-and-down a few times and the putter was rolling, and it’s nice to make five birdies out on this golf course. Hopefully just do something similar over the next few days.”
The 20-year-old Yin, who won this year in Los Angeles, had two birdies and an eagle in a bogeyless round. Lin, who finished third last week, had four birdies in search of her first win on tour. The 27-year-old lost in a playoff earlier this year in California.
They are looking to become the second Chinese player to win a major. Shanshan Feng won the LPGA Championship in 2012. That event became the Women’s PGA Championship in 2015.
Yin is not surprised she and her friend played so well.
“Janet (Xiyu), she has a pretty solid game, too, and I’m not surprised she can shoot 4 under at this course, maybe 5 under,” Yin said.
Wichanee Meechair of Thailand was alone at 68. Leona Maguire of Ireland, the winner last week in Michigan, was at 69 with Ayaka Furue and Yuka Saso of Japan, Jenny Shin of South Korea, Celine Borge of Norway and Esther Henseleit of Germany.
Rose Zhang, the two-time NCAA individual champion at Stanford who became the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA Tour event in her pro debut this month at nearby Liberty National, opened with a 70.
The 20-year-old Zhang had bogeys on the second and fourth holes, but played steady after that and made three birdies the rest of way, settling for a birdie on the 18th after missing an 8-foot eagle attempt.
“I knew when you’re going to be out here, it’s going to be very difficult, and you’re going to have to try to claw your way back when things aren’t going your way,” Zhang said.
World No. 1 Jin Young Ko and Lilia Vu, the only two-time winners on the LPGA Tour this year, shot 72. No. 5 Minjee Lee also had a 72.
Defending champion In Gee Chun was 2 under at the front nine, but had five bogeys on the back nine and finished at 74.
Second-ranked Nelly Korda and No. 9 Lexi Thompson each shot 76.