First round at Kemper Lakes proves a walk in the park

There are four players named Park on the Ladies PGA tour roster, and they’re all good.

The best known in Inbee Park, three-time winner of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the current No. 1-ranked player in the Rolex World Rankings. Hee Young Park has won twice on the circuit and Jane Park calls Chicago her hometown though she lives in Georgia. She has career winnings over $2 million.

It was Sung Hyun Park who ruled the day in the first round of the 64th KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes, however. A late starter, she toured the course that also hosted the 1989 men’s PGA Championship in 6-under-par 66.

This Park, 24, won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open en route to becoming the first player to win Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year awards in the same year since Nancy Lopez in 1978. She also became the fastest player in LPGA history to reach $2 million in career earnings, doing it in 19 starts spanning barely seven months.

A change in putters triggered Park’s hot round. She changed TaylorMade models, switching from a Spider to a Black version that – at 34 inches – is an inch longer than the one she had been using.

“It’s going to get hotter and more difficult as the rounds go on,’’ said Park. “It’s a major tournament and I’m getting more nervous, but I’m doing my best.’’

Softened by four inches of rain earlier this week, Kemper was somewhat of a walk in the park for the 156 women who teed off in the LPGA’s third major championship of 2018.

Park, born in Korea but residing in Orlando, Fla., held only a one-stroke lead on five players headed by Canadian Brooke Henderson. Only 20, Henderson already has a sterling record in the tournament, finishing fifth while playing on a sponsor’s exemption in 2016, winning the title in 2017 and finishing one stroke behind winner Danielle Kang last year at Olympia Fields.

Henderson, also an afternoon starter, came charging midway through her round. She made birdies on seven of her last 10 holes to pull into a tie with long-hitting American Jessica Korda and Jaye Marie Green, who said she’s struggling with “family troubles at home’’ but wouldn’t elaborate further. Another American, Brittany Altomare, joined the group at 5-under late in the day.

The low scoring – 50 players bettered par — was no surprise. The softened greens were helpful, there was little wind and the course setup was 102 yards shorter than the listed tournament yardage. Henderson said she had mud balls on “like every hole’’ but the lift, clean and place rule wasn’t in effect.

Despite the array of low scores, none of the three players in the featured group – Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and Kang – could finish in red numbers. Inbee and Jutanugarn are 1-2 in the Rolex World Rankings. Jutanugarn’s sister Moriya finished at 4-under and in a four-way tie for sixth.

Though Lexi Thompson and Brittany Marchand makes holes-in-one and Michelle Wie had a hot streak with four birdies in a five-hole stretch, it was Henderson who made the fastest climb up the leaderboard after a slow start.

She missed the fairway on her first tee shot and missed the first two greens, leading to a pair of quick bogeys, but she recovered quickly. She shot 30 on her back nine (actually holes 1-9 because Henderson started play at No. 10).

“That gives me a lot of confidence and momentum going into (Friday), which is nice,’’ she said. “I was just trying to have a really good, solid score but — starting the first two holes like I did – that drops your momentum. Brit (her sister and caddie) helped me through it. We started grinding away, then slowly things started to turn around.’’

The turn-around was climaxed by a 50-foot birdie putt at No. 9, the last hole of her round. Like Sung Hun Park, Henderson benefitted from a putting change made this week. It worked playing with men pros in a Rhode Island exhibition on Monday and there was a carryover to her play at Kemper Lakes.

“One putter was a blade and this one is a mallet, so it was a pretty big change,’’ said Henderson. “The one I’m using now might be an inch or two longer and has a different grip. It’s like everything is different, which is a good thing.’’