Caroline Canales thinks she’s played Bel-Air Country Club at least 100 times. But none of those instances were as nerve-wracking as her first tee shot on Monday at Bel-Air’s iconic par-3 10th hole, when Canales, 20, was given the honor of hitting the first ball at the 123rd U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“I definitely felt the nerves with a big gallery watching,” said Canales, who grew up in Calabasas, just 20 miles from the iconic Los Angeles golf course. “That’s a tough tee shot. I think it’s one of the hardest holes. It was a nice honor and I’m really grateful for the opportunity, but I definitely felt some nerves there.”
Canales, a rising junior who was recently named to the All-Pac-12 First Team after an impressive sophomore season, is the only current member of the UCLA women’s golf team in the 156-player field. The team, whose campus sits adjacent to Bel-Air Country Club, plays the course twice a week during the school year, so Canales was able to put her local knowledge and familiarity with the George C. Thomas design to good use, carding a 4-under 66 to take a share of the first-round lead.
“The greens are in incredible shape,” said Canales. “I would say they’re faster than usual, especially given the heat. They’ve made them really fast and pure. I did notice they cut the rough a little bit, which made it slightly easier on some holes. But I think the set-up is really, really nice.”
Matching Canales with a 4-under 66 was Briana Chacon, 21, of Whittier, Calif., who is set to enter her fifth year at the University of Oregon this fall. Chacon, who went off in the afternoon wave, had just one bogey (on the par-3 10th hole) to go along with five birdies.
Katie Cranston, 19, of Canada, finished her round with a birdie on the par-4 9th to end the day just one back of the lead. After an opening hole bogey on the 10th, Cranston played the rest of her first nine in even par before heating up after making the turn. She carded four birdies with no blemishes over her final nine holes. The Auburn University rising sophomore is playing in her second U.S. Women’s Amateur, having advanced to the Round of 16 in 2021.
Seven players sit two shots off the lead at 2-under par. Among that group is Andrea Lignell, of Sweden, who is currently ranked No. 19 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, as well as Malia Nam, 23, of Kailua, Hawaii, who will begin her fifth year at nearby USC in a few weeks.
Two players from the University of Tulsa golf team are in the field. Grace Kilcrease of Springdale, Ark., shot a 2-over 72 and is tied for 57th. Lilly Thomas of Bentonville, Ark., shot 74 is tied for 94th. Stroke play continues today with the top 64 advancing to match play beginning Wednesday.
A contingent from Southern Hills in Tulsa is on hand to study proceedings. The 2024 U.S. Women’s Amateur will be held Aug. 9-15 at Southern Hills.