The first round of the Uniden LPGA Invitational usually generates all the excitement of an oil and lube job. Let's see, an unknown makes an appearance on the leader board . . . someone complains about the Mesa Verde Country Club greens . . . hot dogs sell well. The usual.
But Thursday's opening round was chock-full of news flashes, including word that Uniden, title sponsor of the event for the past three years, is leaving to underwrite its own tournament in north Los Angeles County. What happens next still is unclear, but it appears Mesa Verde will become an LPGA orphan--again.
Too bad, since there was enough noteworthy golf in Round One to justify a return. Four players--Amy Benz, Laura Baugh, Cathy Morse and Patty Sheehan--are tied for the lead with four-under-par 68s. In the previous two Unidens, no one had shot anything less than a 69 on the first day, and that's when Mesa Verde played to a par 71.
Jan Stephenson, Beth Daniel, Hollis Stacy, Becky Pearson, Cindy Rarick and Val Skinner are one stroke back while Cathy Kratzert, Dale Eggeling, Mary Beth Zimmerman and Muffin Spencer-Devlin are two shots behind.
But wait, there's more. Marlene Hagge, who has been on the LPGA tour since 1950, made a hole in one on the par-3, 167-yard No. 3. Good thing, too, since she took 76 other strokes to finish her round. And Laurie Rinker was so pleased with her three-over-par 75, that she angrily heaved her ball into the pond near the 18th green after her final putt.
For the most part, though, there were more smiles than frowns. And why not? The Mesa Verde greens were unusually generous and the winds made only infrequent visits. That helped, as did some strange exploits of the leaders.
Sheehan spent her round in various locales, most notably away from the fairways. Her birdie on No. 1, a 440-yard par-5, pretty much typified her day, what with a drive that landed among the trees, followed by a 5-iron shot to the fringe, followed by a short wedge and then a 30-foot putt that dropped without protest.
Before it was over, Sheehan had scrambled into the lead, though, she's not quite sure how. All it took were shots like the one on No. 4, when she chipped over the green on her third shot, but still managed a par. There was a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 5 and then an improbable 40-foot bunker shot on No. 11 that popped out of the sand and into the cup.
"I was walking up 15 and I was thinking, 'This is such an easy day.' Then I looked at my card. I only hit nine greens," she said. "I didn't really play all that pretty today. A pretty bizarre round."
Then there is Morse, who has spent nine years on the tour only to decide this past winter to change her game. We're not talking about a simple swing adjustment here.
"I changed my grip, stance, set up, everything," she said.
It worked. Morse hit 15 greens. She also used new clubs and a swing that encourages a hook rather than her natural fade shot. For good measure, she changed her putter three days ago. By the way, Morse has played once in the last two weeks.
Just your average tournament preparation.
"I just took a chance," she said.
Baugh used more orthodox methods to earn a share of the lead. First, she took advantage of Mesa Verde's par 3s, scoring birdies on four of the five. On the fifth par 3, the 175-yard No. 18, Baugh made two nice putts from a tricky uphill position on the green.
"I would have putted it into the water if I had tried that (a birdie)," she said.
So here is Baugh in the unfamiliar position of co-leader. Known more for her beauty than her golf game, Baugh never has earned more than $49,301 in a single season. A victory at the Uniden brings $49,500.
"I could just quit then," she said. "It would be my best year then."
But seriously, Baugh has delayed non-golf projects such as videos "until I played a little better."
This only is Baugh's second tournament of the year. She didn't do much for her video cause in her first effort, the Standard Register/Samaritan tournament. She tied for 65th, which won't get you on many videos, except maybe one with golf bloopers.
On Thursday, Baugh demonstrated that small paychecks may soon be replaced with larger figures. That is, if her putting stroke returns for Rounds 2-4.
"This is the first round that I really felt that I could make some putts," she said.
And now, possibly, some money.
"It bothers people more than it bothers me," she said, "and it bothers me a bit."
Benz had one of the more consistent rounds of the day. Except for a brief scare on No. 17, a difficult par 4, she never flirted with a bogey.
Instead, Benz (nicknamed "Mercedes" by fellow pros), gave herself numerous chances for birdies and easy pars.
"I had my opportunities," she said. "I made a few of them and I missed a few of them. I definitely could have been better."
Four-under par will do for now. Walking up the 18th hole, Benz's caddy mentioned that it was the easiest 68 he had ever seen. Benz didn't argue with the assessment.
"I'm not usually the kind of person who comes up the first day," she said. "But after four days I can usually hang in there."
The challengers are a bit more familiar than the Benzes and Morses of the world. Stephenson, Daniel and Stacy had their moments, as did Pearson and Skinner, who owned five-under-par rounds until the wheels fell off late in the day.
Stephenson's round was interesting, mainly because she avoided missing short putts that have ruined her in the past. And for a change, she made some long putts, including a couple of 15- to 18-footers, that helped boost her confidence as the round continued.
"It was one of those days that I could have been six or seven under."