BEDMINSTER, New Jersey — A storm blew through the U.S. Women's Open on Thursday afternoon, and no, we're not talking about the arrival of a blustery President. That will happen sometime in the coming days. This was a deluge accompanied by thunder and lightning, temporarily halting a first round that was otherwise a welcome respite to a contentious week. After a seemingly endless string of awkward press conferences, ill-conceived newspaper columns and the general unease that has accompanied this trip through Trumplandia, the golf at long last took center stage.
Shanshan Feng earned a one-stroke lead by torching a softened Trump National Golf Club Bedminster with a six-under 66 that included a mere 31 strokes on her opening nine holes. Amy Yang is alone in second with a 67 while royalty resides at 68, in current world number one So Yeon Ryu and her predecessor Lydia Ko.
Feng played with Ko and Hall of Famer Inbee Park, an inspired pairing that brought together all three medalists from the 2016 Olympics. This was the kind of storyline this tournament needed, not forced political statements from a tour where more than 60% of the players are not American and thus unable to participate in our recent presidential elections. Can Ko end her recent swoon and reclaim her record-breaking mojo? Will Ryu consolidate her reign? Can Cristie Kerr (69) produce a triumphant victory that would assure her place in the Hall? Would Feng winning America's national championship turn her into the Se Ri Pak of China? These were the stories at the Open—for one day at least—not the specter of protests and the oxygen-sucking sideshow that will be President Trump making the scene. On Thursday, the competitors were palpably relieved to have actual golf to play and talk about. "If anything, it's just another golf tournament for us," said Lizette Salas, who shot a 71, on a day that ended with 46 players in red numbers. "I think a lot of people are kind of anticipating some sort of commotion or some sort of non-golf-related activity, but as far as the players are concerned, this is our national championship and we just want to keep things as simple and stress-free as possible."
Feng subscribes to a similar feng shui. "I like to be happy all the time," she says. Her coach Gary Gilchrist marvels at her ability to remain unaffected by bad shots and even bad tournaments. Following her 66, Feng was asked how she was able to forget about a desultory performance at the recent Women's PGA Championship and find her game for the Open. "Because I missed the cut? Actually, already forgot it," she said.
While her bronze medal in Rio has made Feng a star in her native China, her star turn at this Women's Open is an opportunity for the wider world to get to know a player whom her colleagues often describe as the funniest on the LPGA tour.
"I won't say funniest, just silliest," Feng says. "I do tell jokes all the time."
Give us an example, Shanshan.
"You are very bad looking."
That's not a joke; it's a putdown.
"O.K., you want a joke? I am the best-looking girl on the planet."
That's sarcasm, but we appreciate the effort.
Much as at Erin Hills, the players were strangely relaxed considering it's an Open, no doubt owing to the easy scoring conditions. With the heavy rains of Thursday afternoon – play was halted at 4:29 and resumed at 6:34 – birdies should be plentiful for at least another day. But if the conditions toughen, Yang will be quite dangerous, as this Open-specialist has finished in the top-4 four times in the last five years. Yang, 27, has three wins on the LPGA and an equal number on the LET, but she says of the Open, "I do like a little more difficult conditions. Makes you more focused out there."
This is the essence of a tournament that dates to 1946. It is the single most important event in the women's game, and there isn't a close second. Its eminence will not be diminished by the past crude words and actions of the host, even if he happens to be President. "At the end of the day, who cares who owns the golf course?" asks Ryann O'Toole. "At the end of the day, it's the U.S. Women's Open and that's what matters."