There is a Kiwi golfer atop of the ISPS Handa NZ Women’s Open leader board but not the one that everybody expected. Sydney-based Kiwi Stacey Tate fired a four-under par 68 in the cold conditions of the afternoon round to claim a share of the lead alongside South Korean professional Seon Woo Bae with tournament favourite Lydia Ko delivering a remarkable fight back to stay in contention.
The World No.4 Ko didn’t think it was going to be her day. She made the turn in two-over par but she thrilled the large gallery when she played the back nine in five-under par 31 to sign for a three-under par 69 at the Clearwater Golf Club.
The 16-year-old will begin round two in a share of third place, one stroke behind Bae and Tate, who was six-under par through 16 holes only to drop two shots in the final two holes.
Ko is one of five players tied for third alongside English sensation Charley Hull, Hyeji Lee (South Korea) Sarah Jane Smith (Australia) and Alexandra Vilatte (France) who opened with rounds of 69
She was happy with her run of five birdies on the homeward nine after it looked like she was heading for a forgettable opening to the National Open.
“I kind of thought maybe this isn’t my day,” said Ko at her press conference.
“I didn’t really know what to think. Especially when you are not playing well in all aspects of your game. You can’t really say ‘I am playing well, I am playing well’ because you are not. Trying to be confident was one of the hardest things I had to do today.”
In time Ko’s confidence returned. She made a great save for par on her 10th hole and then birdied three of the next four holes to get back into the red numbers.
The LPGA Tour Rookie finished with a flourish when she made a spectacular birdie on the 8th (her 17th) and then chipped in on the par 3 9th (18th) to complete the remarkable turnaround.
“The back nine was definitely the highlight especially chipping in on the last hole. I didn’t give myself too many opportunities to make birdie on the front nine. I wasn’t hitting it too good and then I warmed up.
“I putted really well and made a lot of saves for par from around six feet. My putting was definitely better than the rest of my game. After a birdie that is where I build my confidence and birdie after birdie definitely helps.”
Meanwhile Tate, who reignited her professional career after a four year hiatus from the game, was pinching herself after her first visit to the Media Centre.
“I started off pretty shaky, it is always pretty nerve-wracking coming to your National Open and wanting to do well,” said the 29-year-old from Auckland’s North Shore who didn’t have a practice round.
“But once I got into the round it started to flow.” It sure did. Tate made five birdies in a row to start her back nine and then added another on seven to get to six-under par for the event.
It was a surreal feeling for Tate – who has worked in real estate, as a personal trainer and now golf administration - after not playing competitively for some time.
“I gave the game away for about four years. I was pretty sick of it. I stepped back from the game and went back into the real world and got some perspective on life. Golf is my happy place so it is good to be back.”
It was the sort of round golfer’s dream of, until the bogey – bogey finish that is.
“These things happen,” she said with a laugh. “That was probably a bit of nerves to be honest. I am pretty pleased with the way I played.”
Tate revealed all of her preparation was working on the process and it showed with the birdies.
“It just felt like easy golf. My goals for the week were to just keep things as basic as possible. Centre of greens, centre of fairways – just thinking clearly out there. You only have to focus for nine or 10 seconds so I am just focusing on that moment.”
Bae was also focusing on the moment. The South Korean professional, who fired a course record eight-under par 64 at Clearwater in 2013 on her way to finishing fourth, continued her affinity with the Christchurch layout.
“I am lucky today,” said the 20-year-old. “I didn’t play too good but I putted very well to get a good score.”
“I played well on the back nine [the front nine at Clearwater]. I was hitting the ball very close to inside six feet most of the time and making the putts. My short putts were good. I am happy with my score.”
The World No.242 is hoping she can continue this form to contend the title at a course that she feels right at home on.
“I love Clearwater. It is the same sort of course as we have in Korea. I like this design and it is very beautiful. I feel comfortable playing here. I am very happy to be course record holder.”
Meanwhile England’s Charley Hull was happy with her start in her first tournament of 2014.
The LET Rookie of the Year got off to a poor start with her opening tee shot that hit two different cart paths but recovered superbly to make a birdie.
She wasn’t feeling too good about her swing until she made some alterations.
“After six holes I realised that my club face was open with my driver. So I thought I would square it up and I started hitting it a bit more straight,” said the 17-year-old.
“I am trying to get my game more smooth. I was trying to hit it too hard. I played really great in the last three weeks of last year. I fell into my old habits today when I was trying to smash it but when I play with a smoother tempo it is better. I was happy to shoot 69 today.”