TOLEDO, Ohio – Lee-Anne Pace wasn’t supposed to be back on the LPGA. Last year she was set to retire from the LPGA before the lure of a $1 million payout kept her out through October. Pace didn’t win the Aon Risk Reward Challenge, that prize went to Carlota Ciganda, so she returned home to South Africa and made plans to have a baby this spring with her partner.
Like so many dreams in the COVID-19 era, however, starting a family was ultimately delayed when the IVF clinic she planned to use in Cape Town shut down. Pace, 39, moved back to France, where she has a second residence, to ride out the pandemic. She certainly didn’t expect to get into the LPGA Drive On Championship and Marathon Classic. She’s No. 214 on the LPGA priority list. But with so many international players delaying their return to the tour, Pace suddenly had an opportunity to come back.
“Why not? Let’s have a go,” she decided.
And so Pace flew to California to quarantine in sizzling Palm Springs, played a couple fun rounds with friends. Now she’s two off the lead at the Drive On after a first round in which she carded a 4-under 68 on a challenging Inverness track that tests every part of a player’s game.
“I practiced last week and this week,” she said. “I’m just as surprised as you.”
While Pace didn’t win last year’s Aon challenge, she’s still benefiting from the canceled race this week, as is the rest of the field. When Aon asked LPGA commissioner Mike Whan what they could do to help, Whan asked if the $1 million payout could be spread amongst all the players. Aon agreed, and the money was a driving force behind this week’s Drive On.
The Inverness Club was first approached by the LPGA about hosting the event seven weeks ago. The idea was to create a two-week bubble for the players to compete in before heading overseas. And if the Marathon Classic had fans (it has since been decided that it won’t), the LPGA would have a chance to test all their new COVID-19 protocols and get everything set on a site with an extremely limited number of people.
Inverness agreed to host five weeks ago, and it’s proving to be the ultimate welcome-back challenge. Players have raved about the historic Donald Ross design since they stepped foot on the immaculate grounds.
The word “limited” can be applied to virtually everything this week. Kang had no idea she was leading the event until she walked out of scoring as there are no leaderboards here this week. With no spectators, even the ropes are limited. Players are able to check scores on their phones this week, but Kang doesn’t think she’ll do it. While she usually is a leaderboard-watcher, the idea of taking out her phone mid-round and getting distracted doesn’t appeal to her.
“Yeah, it is what it is,” said Kang. “Just go with the flow.”
She will probably check the PGA Tour’s Barracuda Championship board when she gets off the course tomorrow as boyfriend Maverick McNealy currently sits in second place.
Nelly Korda, the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 2, stumbled in with four bogeys on the last five holes and shot 76.
Jodi Ewart Shadoff sits alone in second after posting a 5-under 67 in the afternoon wave. France’s Celine Boutier, who won the Texas Women’s Open as well as the Kathy Whitworth Paris Championship, a Women’s All-Pro Tour event, over the break, joined Pace at 4 under.
A couple of rookies with limited rounds on the LPGA – Yui Kawamoto and Maia Schechter – find themselves in the top 10 after an opening 70.