Maria Fassi delivers career-best 62 to take early LPGA lead

BELLEAIR, Fla. (AP) — Maria Fassi always knew a good putting stroke to go along with her explosive power would lead to low scores. She picked a good time for it to finally come together.

Fassi powered her way across the rain-softened Pelican Golf Club and rode a smooth putting stroke to an 8-under 62, her career low on the LPGA Tour, giving her a two-shot lead in the Pelican Women's Championship.

This is the final tournament before the leading 60 players qualify for the CME Group Tour Championship with its $7 million purse.

Fassi, the 24-year-old from Mexico, is at No. 72.

“I think every single one of us out here wants to finish the year at CME,” Fassi said. “For me, it was a very tough season at the beginning and kind of got back on my feet towards middle, end of the season. So now that I have a chance, and especially after today’s round, it’s just keep doing what I’ve been doing today.”

Fassi felt confident by going back to her “claw” putting grip. Her power was even a bigger advantage on soft fairways with little roll.

Lexi Thompson, Carlota Ciganda and Hyo Joo Kim were among those at 66. Thompson ended a streak of more than three years without a victory at the Saudi-funded Aramco Team Series in New York last month.

Gaby Lopez opened with a 65, while Nelly Korda was in the group at 66. Lydia Ko, who can clinch LPGA player of the year with a victory, was six behind after a 68.

The Pelican Women's Championship was washed out Thursday because of Tropical Storm Nicole, and was reduced to 54 holes.

Fassi decided to replace her 5-wood with a hybrid, and after a big drive on the par-5 14th, the perfect club was a 5-wood.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is interesting,’” Fassi said.

She figured her hybrid would leave her a few yards short of the green, but there was just enough breeze behind her and just enough power in her swing that it got onto the green and rolled out to 8 feet, setting up an eagle putt.

“Honestly, I couldn’t have left myself a better putt for eagle, and it was good to just finish it with a good putt,” Fassi said.

She was among the most heralded college stars after graduating from Arkansas, but getting her power under control has been mostly what held her back. It took her until her 15th start on the LPGA Tour to seriously contend, tying for third in Cincinnati.

Alena Sharp of Hamilton, Ont., is tied for 23rd at 2 under. Maude-Aimee Leblanc of Sherbrooke, Que., is tied for 40th at 1 under. Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont., is tied for 78th at 1 over. Maddie Szeryk of London, Ont., is tied for 93rd at 2 over.

“I knew that a round like this could happen at any point in the year,” Fassi said. “But I think it was more mentally and just kind of letting myself go out and play, kind of get out of my own way. That was my biggest goal this week.”

One player who won't be at the CME Group Tour Championship is Linn Grant of Sweden, who won the Scandinavian Mixed, when the European tour and Ladies European Tour competed against each other. In a statement to Golfweek, Grant said she can't travel to the U.S. because she is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I understand some people want to know why I am not playing in the U.S. I respect that. The simple reason is that I am not vaccinated,” she said. “Regarding why, I ask the same respect back.”

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The Associated Press