Early in the week, Stacy Lewis received more attention for being critical of a pig-tailed 11-year-old than for being ranked No. 1 in the world.
Lewis said Tuesday if Lucy Li were her child, she wouldn’t have allowed the 11-year-old to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. That came off being a bit harsh, even if Lewis, who can be blunt, simply was expressing her opinion.
Thursday, the focus was on Lewis’ golf as the 69th U.S. Women’s Open began at Pinehurst No. 2. Li, the youngest to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open, again was a story line but Lewis was the story with a 3-under-par 67.
Teeing off at 8:02 a.m., Lewis birdied three holes and was bogey-free in taking the first-round lead. She then retired to the clubhouse to see if anybody could top it, and no one did.
“Stacy is playing unbelievable, so I don’t know if anybody can catch her,” said Juli Inkster, a two-time U.S. Women’s Open winner who had a 71. “She’s got the heart for it. She’s got the want. She wants it.”
A lot of players want it. Michelle Wie, seeking her first major championship, played late in the day and birdied the 18th hole for 2-under 68.
“It was a grind out there, but I played well,” said Wie, who also holed a tough par putt at the 17th.
While defending champion Inbee Park struggled to a 76, just two shots better than’s Li’s 78, the leader board wasn’t lacking star power. Wie is a big name, even without a major, and there were such former U.S. Women’s Open winners as So Yeon Ryu, Paula Creamer and Karrie Webb.
Ryu, saying she was nervous all 18 holes, had a 1-under 69 and was joined by Australia’s Katherine Kirk and Minjee Lee, who is No. 1 in the world amateur rankings. Webb and Creamer had 70s, and 2009 U.S. Women’s Open champion Eun-Hee Ji was among those at 1-over 71 along with Lexi Thompson, winner of the year’s first major at the Kraft Nabisco.
Park, second in the Rolex world rankings, played with Lewis and 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Emma Talley, adding more sheen to Lewis’ spotless round on No. 2.
“She didn’t make many mistakes,” Park said.
Lewis missed just one fairway and one green in regulation. She needed 32 putts but made the clutch par putts.
“It was such an easy day,” Lewis said.
Easy? That’s not a word often associated with the U.S. Women’s Open. Nor was it used much last week during the U.S. Open on No. 2.
Martin Kaymer of Germany was 9 under par on No. 2 in breezing to an eight-shot victory last week. Lewis was paying close attention.
“I like to hit a cut (shot) a lot like Kaymer does,” Lewis said. “So on a lot of those holes, it was cool to see that the plan I had laid out in my head, he was kind of doing the same thing. It was nice coming into the week knowing my plan was going to work on this golf course.
“I thought that somebody, like the guys, can run away with this. If you’re hitting the ball well enough, you can definitely run away with it.”
Kaymer jumped to a big lead with 65s on Thursday and Friday. Lewis, 29, has more work to do but has twice won majors – the 2011 Kraft Nabisco and 2013 Women’s British Open – and the Texas native has twice won on the LPGA Tour this year.
“Golf right now is a big part of her life,” Inkster said. “She wants to be No. 1. There’s a lot of people out there who say they want to be No. 1, but I’m not really sure they really do. She wants to be it.”
Lewis wrestled the No. 1 ranking away from Park, whose U.S. Women’s Open victory last year gave her three consecutive wins in majors. The LPGA Player of the Year in 2013, a balky putter kept Park winless for more than 11 months, but she came to Pinehurst off a victory in the Manulife Financial Classic capped by a final-round 61.
While Lewis was steady Thursday, Park had four bogeys and two double-bogeys on her card, saying, “It’s probably beyond disappointment.”
The pace of play on a steamy day was slow at times, and a thunderstorm forced a suspension at 7:12 p.m.
Li, paired with former UNC golfer Catherine O’Donnell and Jessica Wallace of Canada, started early, had a large gallery and got roars for her two birdies in her first U.S. Open round.
“I thought she was awesome,” O’Donnell said.
Late in the afternoon, amateur Marissa Chow was 4-under and in the lead through seven holes. Chow then double-bogeyed the eighth, missing the green. She did the same at the par-3 ninth and the par-5 10th.
The course had some teeth. When play was suspended, five players were under par compared to 15 a week ago in the opening round of the U.S. Open, and the average score was 75.73.
On this day, no one could catch, much less better Lewis.