Experience must be overrated in major championships. So is past success.
Just ask Nicole Castrale.
On a day when the world's best female player barely broke par and the world's most-talked-about 16-year-old player struggled early before finishing strong, Castrale barreled over Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace in the opening round of the LPGA Championship.
With an ease that belied her experience or success in previous majors, the 27-year-old Californian whose career has been stalled by injury shot an 8-under-par 64 yesterday to take a two-stroke lead over Pat Hurst and Cristie Kerr. Christina Kim, Seon Hwa Lee of South Korea and Dorothy Delasin are three strokes behind.
Nine others, including 2006 leading money-winner Lorena Ochoa of Mexico and highly touted rookie Ai Miyazato of Japan, are four strokes behind. Three-time and defending champion Annika Sorenstam shot 1-under 71, as did Michelle Wie after making birdies on three of the last four holes.
The score by Castrale was her career best on the LPGA Tour by three strokes and tied the record for the opening round in the history of the event, now in its 52nd year. Castrale's only previous experience in majors came when she missed the cut in the U.S. Women's Open, in 1998 and again last year.
Asked why it took her so long to have a round like this, Castrale said: "I think people play well at different times in their life and hopefully this is my time. We have worked really hard and we have worked on trying to hit fairways and greens and everything else from there will take care of itself."
Much of Castrale's career has been spent rehabilitating shoulder injuries.
During her senior year at Southern California, Castrale suffered a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder as a result of a car accident on the freeway but continued to play with the injury. After making the LPGA Tour in 2002, Castrale had two operations three months apart.
Thinking she had the problem fixed, Castrale woke up one morning in 2004 and couldn't move her left arm. She was diagnosed with bursitis in the left shoulder and needed more surgery. Finally healthy again last year, Castrale won back-to-back events on the Futures Tour, earning her way back to the LPGA Tour.
Can a player who has finished no higher than a tie for fourth earlier this year at the Fields Open in Hawaii start thinking about winning her first LPGA tournament, in a major championship no less? If her injuries taught Castrale anything, it's not to plan too far ahead, even one day in the future.
"I can't try to win the tournament," said Castrale, who started on the par-4 10th hole yesterday and made five of her eight birdies on the back. "We've got 54 more holes, so if winning the tournament's in my mind, then I'm not going to execute the shot at hand."
Those trailing this relative unknown feel the same way.
"You can't really hurt yourself on the first day," Sorenstam said. "I didn't do that at all. Right now I'm four shots behind [a few hours before Castrale finished]. Who knows where I'll be by the end of the day, but I would be happy to be four shots [behind] with nine holes to play."
It seemed as if Wie would be playing her way out of contention, even out of the tournament. But after finding herself 2-over through 12 holes, Wie started making some birdie putts, something she had failed to do down the stretch at the men's U.S. Open qualifier in Summit, N.J., on Monday.
"It's not that different," said Wie, when asked to compare the atmosphere between the two venues. "Monday was so hectic. It was a circus out there. But it was fun. This is really fun too. ... I'm playing on a golf course and I'm basically just trying to focus on my game."
For Castrale, it doesn't feel any different than the two Futures Tour events she won last year, helping her finish fourth overall on the money list.
"Obviously the arena is much larger and there's more fans out here, but when it's all said and done, a 7-iron is a 7-iron, no matter where you are, what course you're on," Castrale said.
Considering the conditions at Bulle Rock yesterday - soft greens, little wind and clouds until late in the afternoon - it wasn't surprising to see the low scores. It didn't surprise Castrale's husband and caddie, Craig, who walked the back nine in the morning a few hours before his wife teed off.
"I knew somebody was going to go deep," said Craig Castrale, a former college player at Southern Illinois.
"You didn't know it was going to be me," said Nicole Castrale.
Nobody did. firstname.lastname@example.org
Bulle Rock, Havre de Grace, through Sunday TV: The Golf Channel, 4 p.m.-7 p.m.