[ GOLF ]
Michelle Wie drove from the 16th fairway during the LPGA's Safeway International yesterday in Gold Canyon, Ariz.
Wie gets biggest gallery
after shooting even par
Saiki takes the lead after the
first round of the LPGA’s
SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN, Ariz. >> Michelle Wie got the attention, while Kim Saiki collected the birdies in the opening round of the Safeway International.
Saiki, never a winner in 12 years on the LPGA Tour, shot a career-low 8-under 64 yesterday for a three-shot lead over Annika Sorenstam and defending champion Se Ri Pak.
Donna Andrews and Jennifer Rosales joined Sorenstam and Pak at 5-under 67. Four others were four back at 68.
By far the largest gallery belonged to Hawaii's Wie, with hundreds following the 6-foot, 14-year-old around the sun-baked Superstition Mountain Golf Club course in the desert 50 miles east of Phoenix, where the temperature topped 90 degrees.
The crowd agonized as Wie, making the first of six LPGA starts this year, shot an even-par 72 that could easily have been a 69.
Playing the back nine first, Wie missed 3-foot birdie putts on the par-5, 552-yard 13th and par-4, 310-yard 14th. On the par-4, 412-yard 16th, she hit a true downhill 20-footer from off the green for what would have been a birdie, but the ball bounced off the pin and out of the hole.
Wie pulled to 1 under with a 24-foot birdie putt on the par-5, 500-yard second hole. But as daylight faded on the ninth hole, she finished with her only bogey when her second shot went into the deep rough.
"I feel like I should be better," said Wie, who made the cut in six of seven LPGA tournaments last year. "I practice a lot. I had high expectations for this tournament. And I played good. If my putts fell in, I could shoot like 12 under today."
Only Sorenstam, playing in her first event of the year, rivaled Wie for attention, although she attracted slightly smaller galleries.
"We all know that she's here, and I'm sure she has a good size crowd following her, but I haven't seen her all day," said Sorenstam.
The attention did nothing to shake the focus of Wie, an ebullient ninth-grader. She was joking and smiling with her caddie on the tee box.
"It's my 11th tournament already, so I'm pretty used to it by now and I feel comfortable out here," she said before the start of the tournament.
The throng that followed Wie was treated to a game filled with long drives, deft chipping and solid putting. On the 391-yard first hole, she flew the fairway bunkers that her playing partners avoided, putting her ball 80 yards beyond theirs and within a wedge to the green. There was not a hole where she was outdriven.
She played consistently throughout the round, posting one birdie and one bogey amid a slew of pars.
Tournament organizers were pleasantly surprised by the large first-day turnout. One official said that more fans had shown up than the total for last year's event.
"It's an unbelievable response," said Tom Maletis, the general chairman of the Safeway International.
Saiki, who has finished second on the tour three times -- twice in 1996 and once in 1997 -- had one of those days golfers dream about.
"I don't know that I've ever been able to say after a round that I never hit a bad shot," she said. "But I can say that today."
Her round featured eight birdies, no bogeys. Some of her birdies were tap-ins, others were 20-footers. She capped her round with birdies on the last three holes.
"I was very patient, and everything kind of flowed," Saiki said. "I was basically in the zone today."
She never had anything resembling serious trouble.
"I think the only really poor shot was on my 17th hole, and that wasn't even really that bad," Saiki said. "I kind of pulled a 5-iron and I was kind of on the back fringe, but I can't complain about one golf shot that I hit today. This is by far one of the best ball-striking rounds of my career."
Sorenstam couldn't complain much, either, in her 2004 tour debut. Coming off her sixth player-of-the-year season, her short game compensated for some uncharcteristically erratic iron shots.
"Maybe it wasn't quite as tidy as I wish it would have been," she said, "but, you know, 5 under, I'll take that any day, especially my first round out this year."
The par-72, 6,620-yard Prospector Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, is longer than any layout on last season's LPGA schedule. The combination of length and firm greens was supposed to present a bigger challenge than Thursday's scores would indicate.
Pak attributed the lower-than-expected scores to the fact that the greens weren't as firm as they had been in the pro-am and practice rounds.
"Today the greens were much softer," she said. "I was not really expecting to have so many under pars today, but so many players are playing under par because the greens are just so soft. I mean, you can stop the ball on the greens."
The New York Times contributed to this report.