KOHLER, Wis. -- The fireworks that ignited the Fourth of July sky on the eve of the first round of the U.S. Women's Open were nowhere near as hot as the furnace that was Thursday at the U.S. Women's Open. The 6,954-yard Blackwolf Run course was a sweatbox of a torture test and few survived.
With the heat index at 105 degrees, par became a commendable score and among those who bettered that number was 17-year-old Lexi Thompson, the latest candidate to be the next great American on the LPGA. The long-hitter from South Florida handled the heat and birdied three of the final four holes for a two-under-par 70.
Thompson, who last year became the youngest ever to win an LPGA event and also picked up a victory on the Ladies European Tour, would become the youngest to win an LPGA major with a victory here. That honor is now held by Morgan Pressel, who was 18 years, 10 months and nine days when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
"It would mean a lot, a pretty big achievement right there," Thompson said about the feat. "But there is still a lot of golf to play," she added, displaying the astonishingly well-grounded maturity that exceeds her years. That mental balance helped her not only survive but thrive in the opening round.
After making consecutive bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13, Lexi finished strong. "I got off track a little bit there but bounced back and made a couple of birdies," she said. "You have to place yourself in the right spot on these greens."
Thompson is trying to do something Pressel, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Michelle Wie have failed to do -- be the best player on tour. No American has been LPGA Player of the Year since Beth Daniel in 1994 and no Yank has topped the money list since Betsy King in 1993.
Thompson has two top-10 finishes this year, including second at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and T-5 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. In the first two majors of the year, she was T-22 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and T-30 in the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
Two years ago, at age 15, Thompson was T-10 in the U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont, won by Creamer, who opened with a 73 on Thursday. Thompson, who went out in 34, hit 10 of 14 fairways, 13 greens and averaged 274 yards off the tee, needing 30 putts on the baked Blackwolf Run greens, a part of her game she has been trying to shore up with the help of Dave Stockton.
"Putting is all about confidence," Thompson says. "You just got to pick the line and put a good stroke on it."
Like everyone else, Thompson had to battle the weather. "It was extremely hot out there," she said about the brutal playing conditions. "I had my umbrella up and drank water on every hole. But being from South Florida, I'm used to the heat. I play every day no matter how hot it is."
Only two of the last seven U.S. Women's Opens have been won by Americans, Creamer in 2010 and Kerr in 2007. The only other time the Open was played at Blackwolf Run, Se Ri Pak won in a playoff against Jenny Chuasiriporn in 1998 after they tied at six-over-par 290 when it played as a par-71.
The way things unfolded on Thursday, it appeared as if par might be the winner again this year. "You have to be patient and take your pars on the hard holes," Thompson said. "And when you get to a birdie hole, you have to take advantage of it."
This was exactly the kind of start Thompson was looking for. This appears to be a golf course where no one is going to go low this week, even if the heat wave breaks on the weekend as it is supposed to.
Anything under par on any day is going to be a good score, and two-under par in the furnace of a first round is a great start for anyone, let alone a 17-year-old who is trying to make history.
And what would be a better place than the U.S. Women's Open for Thompson to take a step toward making a Yank the best in the world for the first time since before she was born.
-- Ron Sirak