Lydia Ko recovers after a dreadful start
The crowds flocked, and they got what they came for - eventually.
A sizzling back nine, including a gallery-rousing chip-in on her final hole, catapulted defending champion Lydia Ko into contention heading into the second round of the New Zealand Women's Open at Clearwater today.
But she had to share the limelight late yesterday, as little known Sydney-based Kiwi Stacey Tate grabbed a share of the lead with South Korean Seon Woo Bae.
Tate, 29, who gave up golf for four years and is only in her first season back, carded a four-under par 68 - in front of just a handful of spectators, a stark contrast to Ko - to sit alongside Bae. Ko is lurking one shot adrift.
Tate was a New Zealand amateur rep but she moved to the States to attend college in 2004 and after a couple of years on the second-tier pro tour there she gave up the game.
This is her first season back on tour, and she was so off the radar that she was even introduced on the first tee as an Australian.
Tate had five successive birdies to start her back nine, from hole No.1 to No.5, and got to six-under before bogeys at her final two holes dropped her back to the pack.
''I was nervous... but it started to flow and the birdies dropped,'' Tate said.
A dreary front nine of two-over 38, including three bogeys, left the tournament's drawcard and overwhelming favourite Ko in danger of falling too far back.
But, spurred on by a bumper home crowd, the 16-year-old Kiwi golfing star flicked the switch, with five birdies on her inward nine.
A three-under par 69 has the world No.4 and most talked about player in women's golf lying in a share of third and poised to strike.
''I wasn't hitting it well and I wasn't really into it,'' Ko said of her first nine holes.
''I thought 'oh my God, this isn't going to be good', but after that birdie at No.2 [her 11th hole], I started to really build confidence. I had to hole some good six-footers for par and I was pretty happy with the putting side of my game.
''I'm close [to the lead] and I think I'm in a good position right now.''
Ko was joined at three-under by England's rising star Charley Hull, South Korean Hyeji Lee, Australian Sarah-Jane Smith and Frenchwoman Alexandra Vilatte.
After an opening birdie at the 10th hole, Ko's first, mistakes crept in, with bogeys at the par-four 12th, par-five 14th and par-four 15th.
She left approach shots short and overhit chips, leaving too much work to save par. She walked off the 18th green at two-over after six shots off the lead.
''I was chopping it down the front nine so I was like 'just get back to even','' she said.
''I didn't really know what to think, especially when you're not playing good in every aspect. You can't really tell yourself you're playing well because you're not. I just tried to be confident and that was the hardest thing I had to do.''
But things got going on the back nine. The birdies started rolling in as did clutch par putts.
And her finish was spectacular. She faded a beautiful nine-iron to about two feet on the water-lined par-four eighth, much to the delight of nearby construction workers, and closed with a chip-in from 30 feet for a birdie two on the par-three ninth, her final hole of the day, which brought a loud cheer from the big gallery.
Ko was at a loss to explain her early form in what were benign morning conditions, with little or no wind, but was buoyed by the finish and her putting looms as a major weapon.
Bae, the course record holder after a 64 last year en route to finishing fourth, had two birdies and two bogeys on her front nine, but came home with four birdies on the easier side.
Hull, playing with Ko, also had six birdies and three bogeys, the 17-year-old from England who had a tremendous year in her rookie LET season nicely poised for the weekend. That marquee group tees off at 12.40pm today.
Northland pro Caroline Bon is the next best of the Kiwis, tied for 16th at one-under. Auckland lefthander Cathryn Bristow finished bogey, double-bogey for an even-par 72, alongside compatriot Emily Perry in a share of 28th.
The 54-hole Ladies European Tour-ALPG Tour event, which has a purse of $332,000, concludes tomorrow.