BELLEAIR — After Maria Fassi landed her tee shot on the 14th hole Friday, she immediately thought of going to her 5-wood. It was one of her longest drives of the Pelican Women’s Championship’s opening round, she estimated, and the remaining distance on the par 5 set up perfectly for that club.
Except, it wasn’t in her bag.
Fassi hadn’t anticipated using the 5-wood and had removed it, opting to keep a hybrid instead.
“OK, this is interesting,” she thought, expecting only to reach the front edge of the green at best, maybe 5 yards out.
Instead, Fassi caught a gust of wind. She hit a ball that set up an eagle putt, keying her 8-under 62 that tied the course record at Pelican Golf Club, set her career-best round on the LPGA Tour and gave her the first-round lead.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have left myself a better putt for eagle,” Fassi said, “and it was good to just finish with a good putt.”
Fassi led by two following her bogey-free round at Pelican Golf Club in a tournament delayed a day and shortened to 54 holes due to Hurricane Nicole.
Tied for second were Tiffany Chan, Lexi Thompson, Carlota Ciganda, Hyo Joo Kim and Isi Gabsa.
The 119-woman field has seven of the top 10 golfers in the world ranking. Fassi is ranked No. 130.
“To put a round like this together, you’ve got to have every aspect of your game in line,” said Fassi, 24, from Mexico. “And I really did.”
Also, this is the final tournament before the top 60 players in the season points race qualify for the Tour Championship with its $7 million purse next weekend at Naples. Fassi is at No. 72.
With an unexpected day off Thursday, some golfers embraced getting additional rest after traveling to the tour’s last two events, in South Korea and Japan. Others watched movies or Netflix, worked out or did swing exercises in their hotel rooms. Fassi tried to stay moving but said she needed additional sleep, too.
The previous two tournaments came after a midseason reset helped Fassi recover from a slow start. She missed seven cuts in her first 10 tournaments. After a third-place finish at the Great Lakes Bay Invitational in July, she made the cut in five of her next eight events
Fassi knew she was capable of a round like Friday’s. Another third-place finish, at the Queen City Championship in September, provided a glimpse.
After two holes Friday, though, Fassi was frustrated. Birdie opportunities had turned into pars. That continued through the fourth hole. But Fassi said she continued to create opportunities, saying her putter was “impeccable” and she hit “probably as good as I ever have” off the tee.
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Driving always has been a strength for her. She leads the tour with an average distance of 279.154 yards. She ranked third in 2020 and ‘21, and was second in 2019 after turning pro following her graduation from Arkansas, where she won the NCAA individual title in 2019 and was a two-time winner of the Annika Award as the nation’s best college women’s golfer.
It has taken time for Fassi’s putting to develop, though. During the final round of last weekend’s tournament in Japan, she switched to putting with a claw grip. She had used it throughout most of her career and said it had “worked out pretty good” for her. Fassi said it provided a different look and helped prompt a mental switch.
She finished Friday’s round with birdies on Nos. 5, 6, 7, 11, 13 and 17 to go with her eagle on 14.
Fassi made short and long putts, and her speed control was good, she said. When putting blends with driving, she said, it “frees up the second shots” and “all kind of just works out together.”
“Driving is usually my strength, and I know I’m going to be in the fairway most of the time and pretty far ahead,” Fassi said. “So … just kind of getting the two working out all day (Friday) was huge.”