BETHESDA — BETHESDA -- As Deborah McHaffie was on her way to a 5-under-par 66 and the opening round lead Thursday in the $1 million Mazda LPGA Championship, Ayako Okamoto bowed respectfully in McHaffie's direction when they passed each other on the course.
Yesterday, Bethesda Country Club bowed to Okamoto.
With a 7-under-par 64, which tied the course record, Okamoto was halfway to her first major championship. At 8-under-par 134, Okamoto leads Pat Bradley (68) and Meg Mallon (68) by two shots and Deb Richard (70) by three. Barb Bunkowsky (68) and Rosie Jones (69), last year's runner-up, are four shots behind.
"A major is my goal this year," said Okamoto, 40. "If I have a chance, I want to win."
In 11 years on the LPGA Tour, Okamoto has won 16 tournaments, including the 1988 Greater Washington Open when it was held on this course. She is perhaps the best player on tour never to have won a major, and has come agonizingly close a couple of times.
But unlike McHaffie, whose opening round proved to be a fluke -- she blew up with a 81 and narrowly made the cut at 5-over 147 -- Okamoto is hardly a one-day wonder. In fact, she is one of the most respected players in the game.
"The golf course is obviously to her liking, and she took advantage of it," said Bradley, the tour's current and all-time money leader who is looking for her seventh major title and her first LPGA Championship.
Said Richard: "I'm never surprised when Okamoto shoots 7-under. She has that ability to get hot, and that's what she did today."
With an early tee time, Okamoto didn't have to play in the oppressive, 96-degree heat in which some merely wilted and others, such as McHaffie and Barb Mucha (82 after a 67), merely imploded. Like the weather, Okamoto got hotter as the day went on.
Okamoto followed up an eagle on her third hole, the 445-yard, par-5 12th, with six birdies and only one bogey. She nearly made a hole-in-one on the 148-yard fourth hole. Her tee shot at the par-3, with a 7-iron, hit the front edge of the green and rolled to within 18 inches of the cup.
"Not enough club," joked Okamoto, who has had three previous aces in LPGA events.
It was one of the few times yesterday when a shot by Okamoto came close, but didn't go in. She eagled No. 12 with a 15-foot putt, birdied Nos. 16 and 18 from eight and four feet, and after the bogey at No. 1, birdied Nos. 4, 6, 8 and 9. Her longest putt was 15 feet, and she didn't miss a putt inside 10 feet.
"It proves even if you hit the ball badly, you can still shoot a good score," said Okamoto, whose score was one shot shy of tying her personal best round. "When I was younger, I'd worry about missing a fairway. But I don't worry now. For amateurs and professionals, anyone would rather make a putt than make a fairway."
Asked if there will be great expectations back home should she stay in contention after today, Okamoto said through an interpreter: "Of course there is a lot of pressure. It's the way you control that pressure. I feel well in control. But the pressure exists."
It has been there for most of her career, but has intensified since Okamoto lost in a three-way playoff to Laura Davies in the 1987 U.S. Open and finished second to Nancy Lopez in the 1989 LPGA Championship. She has more than a dozen Japanese-based news outlets chronicling her exploits here this week.
Okamoto is followed with the fanaticism of a rock star back home, given the country's love affair with golf. She has a regular television show and endorses a number of products. "A lot of non-golfers really know her from her commercials," said Marge Kato, who has served as both Okamoto's manager and interpreter.
Her post-round interview sessions are usually more intimidating to Okamoto than the courses she has just played. Yesterday, for instance, she conducted most of the interview with Kato's help. When Kato left, a few reporters stuck around to talk with Okamoto. Someone wanted to know if she was pleased with her round.
"I'm not happy," she said. "Too many microphones."
But Okamoto did manage to share a few secrets: that she changed her putting grip before the round, that she is trying to lose weight and, despite a victory at Hershey, Pa., in 1987 -- "the chocolate city," she called it -- has lost her taste for the stuff.
Okamoto, who plans to spend more time in Japan helping to develop its young golf talent, doesn't know what the weekend holds. But she would like a little less attention. "I'm answering so many questions today," she said. "Does that mean I don't have to come back tomorrow?"
Only if she, uh, bows to the pressure.
The leader . . .
Ayako Okamoto .. .. .. . 70-64134
. . . and followers
Meg Mallon .. .. .. .. . 68-68136
Pat Bradley .. .. .. . . 68-68136
Deb Richard .. .. .. . . 67-70137
Rosie Jones .. .. .. . . 69-69138
Barb Bunkowsky .. .. . . 70-68138
Shirley Furlong .. .. .. 69-70139
jTC Amy Alcott .. .. .. .. . 69-70139
Beth Daniel .. .. .. . . 71-70141
JoAnne Carner .. .. .. . 71-70141
Sally Little .. .. .. .. 75-67142
Deborah McHaffie .. .. . 66-81147
Complete scores: Page 8C