PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Not a late band of rain, a soggy course, nor those pesky orange flags could deter Chella Choi. Not with her father on the bag.
The 22-year-old South Korean, who has never won on the LPGA Tour, shot a 5-under 67 on Friday to take a one-shot lead over Morgan Pressel after the first round of the rain-delayed LPGA Championship.
Brittany Lincicome and Jiyai Shin were tied for third at 69, while Jessica Korda and Se Ri Pak were tied for fifth, another stroke back. Defending champion Shanshan Feng of China had a 2-over 74 as only 14 players broke par in the second major of the year.
Playing in the afternoon long after Pressel had shot 68 to gain the early lead, Choi surged up the leaderboard with a flawless performance on the front nine at rain-soaked Locust Hill Country Club. She made five birdies and no bogeys on her opening nine, averting most of the trouble that lurked at every hole of the waterlogged layout by hitting all 14 fairways and reaching 15 greens in regulation.
“I had a really good driver today,” said Choi, whose 54-year-old father, Ji Yeon, has vowed to serve as her caddie until she gets that first victory. “My goal was to hit the fairways.”
Playing in light drizzle, Choi reached 6 under with another birdie at the deceptively difficult par-4 10th hole, which yielded only 12 birdies to go with 58 bogeys and seven double bogeys.
The first steady rain of the day put a damper on Choi’s final seven holes, but she remained steady, making her only bogey at the par-4 13th hole and parring out.
Choi’s best finish in four-plus years on the tour is a tie for second in the Manulife tournament in Canada a year ago. She had three top-five finishes last year and held the third-round lead at the Mobile Bay Classic last month before fading on the final day and finishing in a tie for fourth.
“I want my first win with my father,” she said.
More than nine inches of rain had fallen on the course in the previous nine days, half of that coming on Thursday when the opening round was pushed back one day. Casual water remained in various spots around the soggy 6,615-yard layout, and players were permitted to lift, clean and place their golf balls.
With the rough waiting to gobble up errant shots, “Portland” John Powell, caddie for Sandra Changkija, had five words of warning after she finished with a 2-over 74 in the morning.
“Don’t be in the rough,” Powell said with a pained smile.
Lorie Kane of Charlottetown was the top Canadian, opening with a 2-over 74. Sue Kim of Langley, B.C. was a further stroke back after a 75. Stephanie Sherlock of Barrie, Ont., shot 77 while Alena Sharp of Hamilton, Ont. struggled to a 79. Rebeca Lee Bentham of Toronto opened with an 81 while rookie Sara-Maude Juneau of Fossambault, Que., shot 82. Maude-Aimee Leblanc of Sherbrooke, Que., withdrew with an apparent injury.
A year ago, Pressel tied for 45th at the LPGA Championship, injuring her left wrist in the process when her erratic play often took her game off course.
That wrist isn’t hurting so much anymore and it showed as she broke 70 for only the second time this year.
“The ball was rolling right where I wanted it to,” Pressel said. “I made four really good putts on the last four holes. Out here, putting is what wins major championships. I feel good about it.”
Pressel had seven birdies and three bogeys and hit 10 of 14 fairways, mostly avoiding the high grass that wreaked so much havoc. Marshals occasionally had to use orange flags to mark balls that sailed off line because the rough was so deep and balls were difficult to spot.
“If we didn’t have the marshals, you wouldn’t find your golf ball,” Lincicome said. “Actually, the further you missed the fairway, the better your lie. But if you missed the fairway by a foot or two, it was going all the way down to the bottom and you were going to have to hit some sort of lob wedge to get it back in play.”
Pressel closed with four straight birdies to vault into the lead.
“I didn’t put myself in any trouble, which you can certainly find on this golf course,” said Pressel, who missed the cut last week for the fifth time this year. “I kept the ball in front of me, but I hit a couple of shots in the rough.”
At least it was game-on. After Thursday’s deluge, everybody was wondering what would transpire since showers were in the forecast. Low-hanging clouds and a light mist greeted the players in the morning and a light drizzle began falling in mid-afternoon, then picked up as Choi made her way around.
“I thought that we would probably tee off about noon, having seen photos of what the golf course looked like. It really didn’t stop raining all night,” said Pressel, who had expected an announcement that the round wouldn’t start on time. “They did an incredible job getting the golf course ready. I don’t think the greens could be any more perfect.
“There’s casual water out there, but that’s to be expected with that much rain. We were just happy we were able to get out on the course.”
There was added pressure with Meg Mallon, captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team, patrolling the course. The matches against Europe at Colorado Golf Club are in August and for just the second time this season U.S.-born LPGA Tour players will earn double points this week.
The top eight U.S. players in the Solheim Cup standings at the conclusion of the Women’s British Open will automatically qualify for the team. Two more will qualify based on their position in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, and Mallon will select the final two team members.
Lincicome was firmly entrenched in the top five, but Pressel was 15th and in need of a good week.
“I’m just trying to go out and play my game and not worry so much,” Pressel said.
The schedule for the weekend called for the second round to be played on Saturday and 36 holes on Sunday.
The first round couldn’t have ended soon enough for Korda, who was exasperated more than once as she trudged around the course.
“I was just trying to hit the green, hit the fairway and get out of there,” she said. “It’s playing really tough. With the added rain, it’s mean. It’s mean.”
DIVOTS: Yani Tseng, a two-time winner of the LPGA Championship, aced the par-3 15th hole, her ball landing 3 feet beyond the pin and spinning back into the cup. She finished with an even-par 72. ... Top-ranked Inbee Park also shot 72, while Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 American, struggled to a 74. Karrie Webb, last week’s Shoprite Classic winner, and Michelle Wie each shot 76.