KPMG Women's PGA Championship

Day 1 at Sahalee produces power on the leaderboard

June 20, 2024


Jeff Babineau

By Jeff Babineau, PGA of America Pool Reporter

SAMMAMISH, Wash. – Thank the heavens. The earth has returned to its axis. Once more, LPGA phenom Nelly Korda is hovering near the top of a big-time leaderboard, much the way the towering trees in Washington stand watch over the fairways at Sahalee.

Like those trees, Korda, 25, casts a tall shadow. Already a six-time winner during the 2024 LPGA season and the top-ranked player in today’s women’s game, the 25-year-old Korda poured in a 16-footer for birdie at the par-3 9th hole on Thursday – her final hole of the day – to return to a position with which she has become quite familiar. After shooting 3-under 69 on a narrow, challenging and winding Sahalee course, Korda was near the top at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

At day’s end, only one name stood taller – this one at the very top – and seeing it returned some semblance of order to the opening day of the year’s third major. One shot above Korda and alone in the lead after a 4-under 68 was her fellow Floridian, Lexi Thompson, who has been trying her best to inject one more big victory into what has been a joyous 2024 LPGA victory lap.

Just days after losing in a playoff at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give in Michigan, Thompson – winless since prevailing at ShopRite five years ago – once again was riding a refreshing wave of spirited resurgence. Thompson birdied the first three holes of the day, sprinkled in three more, weathered a couple of bogeys and converted a clutch 4-foot par putt at the last to shoot 68 and preserve the lead she worked so hard to build.

Since announcing at the U.S. Women’s Open that the 2024 LPGA season will be her last as a full-time competitor, Thompson, 29, has played with a boundless freedom. She tees it up and thinks about making birdies, and lots of them at that.

“I think I clicked into something with my swing just trying to simplify things out there, and visualize my shots, and be more comfortable,” Thompson said of her timely Michigan discovery. “I don’t think that has to do with announcing what I did. It’s just a matter of being comfortable out there – playing ‘free-swing’ Lexi, I guess.”

Getting around Sahalee with a score in the 60s was an accomplishment worth celebrating. On a layout with very little letup, getting the best of Sahalee was considerable work. And with the greens continuing to firm up following early-week rains, the test going forward is only expected to become more arduous.

“Not only is it hard and demanding off the tee,” Korda said, “it’s really hard with your second shots in. It’s hard to take the opportunities when you can and be aggressive out here.”

Somebody forgot to tell that to Thompson, a player who never has been afraid to take a mighty rip at anything. She hit it to 4 feet at the first hole (birdie) and birdied the next two despite missing fairways on both holes. She made the most of good fortune. A pair of 5-footers got her to 3 under after three, and Thompson was off and running.

Korda is looking to get her game back on track this week after missing back-to-back cuts in her last two starts, the first being the U.S. Women’s Open, where she was derailed by a not-so-perfect 10 she encountered on the third hole of the tournament. At the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, the same championship that gave her a first major title in 2021, Korda was steady, patient, and wisely conservative.

Even a double-bogey at the par-4 4th hole – her 13th – did little to impede Korda’s sound play and momentum. After the hiccup, Korda would bounce back strongly, playing her last five holes in 1 under. Bolstered by a pre-round visit from her older sister, Jessica, and Jessica’s newborn son, Grayson, Korda was in good spirits throughout the day.

She smashed an opening drive so hard off the 10th tee to start her day, she nearly reached water she didn’t know was reachable. She knocked the next shot close, made birdie, and then added three more consecutively starting at the par-3 13th. It was that sort of day, and she produced the solid start that she needed after a couple of weeks when her game just wasn’t sharp.

“Overall, I think I played pretty well,” said Korda, looking to collect her second major of the season (she won Chevron). “I took my chances where I could, and I played safe for the majority of the round.”

There were plenty of good players getting off to solid, if not spectacular starts, perhaps a foreshadow that the days ahead will be closely contested. Sahalee gave up very little to players, with only three managing to shoot in the 60s, and kept the field uncomfortable, and at arm’s length.

Patty Tavatanakit, already a major champion at 24, shot 69 in the afternoon, making no bogeys. (“Actually, surprised myself to be able to do that," she said. "This course has teeth, for sure.”)

A group at 70 included France’s Celine Boutier, a four-time winner in 2023; 2023 U.S. Women’s Open champion Allisen Corpuz; and European Solheim Cup players Charley Hull, Madelene Sagstrom and Leona Maguire.

Those players at 71 included defending champion Ruoning Lin of China and Hannah Green, who won this championship in 2019. Twenty-one players in the field broke par.

Sahalee is a breathtaking walk through nature, with players required to carve shots left and right around an interesting variety of towering trees. It promises to be a week ahead that will fully test a player’s mental fortitude as much as their shotmaking skills.

Korda was forced on a few occasions to try to save pars from 30 or 40 yards out because tall overhanging trees kept her from hitting shots to greens. She hit only nine greens in regulation, a low number for her, but scrambled nicely with 13 one-putt greens.

“Overall, this course is so demanding,” Korda said. “By the end of the week, you’re going to be really tired. You’re going to have to put a lot of thought into all your shots.”

Kim Paez, PGA Player Development Manager for PING in Arizona, led the eight-player Corebridge Financial Team of LPGA Professionals, shooting 77.