GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — Almost two years ago, Sherri Steinhauer left the Canadian Open in tears.
Her hips were in excruciating pain and there was a crushing thought that her more than two decades on the LPGA were coming to an end. After two operations and a lot of rehabilitation, the 47-year-old Steinhauer seemingly is back on track.
Steinhauer was the star of the born-again ShopRite LPGA Classic on Friday, shooting a near-flawless 7-under 64 to take a one stroke lead over Natalie Gulbis and rookie Tania Elosegui of Spain.
“To have a 64 under my belt after not playing golf- I didn’t touch a club for 14 months – so it feels real good to get a round like this,” said Steinhauer, who had six birdies, an eagle and one bogey on Seaview’s Bay Course.
Steinhauer had played in only five events this year and missed the cut in the past two, including last week’s State Farm Classic.
“I just love playing golf,” Steinhauer said. “I love competing. You know, hey, if my career ends because I can’t play anymore, that’s OK. I’ll move on. But I’m not satisfied just giving up, so I wanted to work hard because I love it.”
An eight-time winner on the LPGA Tour, Steinhauer had surgery on her left hip in February 2009. Three months later her right hip was fixed, and the rehabilitation process started. She didn’t pick up a club until October, when she started hitting wedges. By the end of the month, she was taking full swings.
“It’s not easy to get up and get into the gym and to do these tedious little exercises and spend the hours in there,” Steinhauer said. “But when I got frustrated or down, I just said, ‘What’s the alternative? Do you want to get out there and play?’ So that would just get me excited. I would imagine being back out on tour, and that would get me excited.”
All the work paid off on Friday.
Steinhauer wasn’t the only one making a comeback on Friday. The $1.5 million tournament in the shadow of Atlantic City also is on the comeback circuit.
It folded in the fall of 2006 after 21 years in a dispute over dates with LPGA leadership. The tour reached an agreement with a new tournament director over the past year, and ShopRite returned as the main sponsor.
The opening round was played on a sunny, calm day near the ocean resort. The lack of wind allowed 60 players to break par and left 29 within four shots of the lead.
Ai Miyazato, the Japanese star who has dominated the women’s tour with three victories this year, was in a group two shots back.
Brittany Lincicome, Suzann Pettersen and Paula Creamer, who is playing in her first event since surgery on her left wrist on March 31, were in another large group three shots back.
Creamer, still bothered by wrist pain, might have been just as surprising a story as Steinhauer. She played her first full round earlier this week and had six birdies and two bogeys on Friday.
“I was nervous, I didn’t know what to expect,” Creamer said. “Like I said, I am glad to be out here and have the opportunity to play.”
Gulbis had six birdies and no bogeys in launching her bid for a second career win. Elosegui, who has won on the women’s European tour, putted extremely well, making seven birdies in shooting a 65.
Cristie Kerr, who became the first American to win on the LPGA tour when she won the State Farm Classic in Illinois on Monday, was at 3 under. Michelle Wie had a disappointing 3-over 74. Fifteen-year-old Alexis Thompson shot a par 71 in her professional debut.
The 54-hole tournament is scheduled to end Sunday.