SINGAPORE - Not even last week's "backstopping" controversy is stopping Amy Olson from having a real go at winning her first LPGA Tour event at the Feb 28-March 3 HSBC Women's World Championship.
The 26-year-old American fired a three-under 69 on Friday (March 1) at Sentosa Golf Club's New Tanjong Course to top of the leaderboard with seven-under 137 after two rounds of the US$1.5 million ($2.02 million) tournament.
Last week, she tied for 23rd at the Honda LPGA Thailand event, but made headlines after being accused of colluding with world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn on the 18th hole of the second round in "backstopping", the illegal practice of not marking one's ball on the green so as to provide a backstop for another player. Players maybe penalised two strokes as a result.
While the LPGA Tour cleared the duo of wrongdoing and said Olson played her shot quickly to help the pace of play, New Zealander caddie Duncan French tweeted a video of the players fist-bumping after Olson's ball hit Jutanugarn's before both made birdies.
"At least the fist bump shows you have zero care for the integrity for the rest of the field," he wrote, before later issuing a public apology.
Olson felt some of the criticism was "extremely hurtful" and that those two days were "some of the hardest" she had to endure.
On Monday, Olson posted on Instagram: "The situation on Friday was innocent. There was no collusion and no intent on either of our parts for me to gain an advantage.
"We are competitors and anyone who used the word 'cheater' to apply to Ariya or me should be held accountable for their words. While I care about my own reputation I find it even more important to clear Ariya who has the highest integrity of anyone on tour. Period.
"To those who have presumed to know our intent and accused us from behind their computer or phone screen, remember that we are real people with reputations, character, and values we live out daily."
Yesterday, she told The Straits Times it was important for her to express her thoughts on social media to have closure, but she will also now be more mindful and have her flight-mates marking anything close to the hole.
She added: "There was a lot of support and positives... it was a really clear case. We didn't do anything wrong, so there was really no issue. It was good for me to have my voice heard because there were a lot of voices out there, and then move on."
And Olson, who started playing golf from two and also enjoys the piano and violin, was on song yesterday as she made an eagle on the par-five fifth - she also eagled the par-five eighth on Thursday - after a great five-iron shot to about 20 feet of the pin, as well as two birdies against one bogey.
She said: "I hit the ball really good today. Gave myself a ton of birdie opportunities on the front, but I just couldn't read the greens out there. The pins were just a lot more difficult and the wind picked up, especially on the back nine.
"It's just a lot of fun to make some birdies, but it's Friday. I feel like I stayed within myself and kind of played smart golf, so that's really important."
Jutanugarn was on the same page as she told ST she was not bothered by the buzz because "we know we didn't do anything wrong, we did not cheat".
The 23-year-old, who shot 71 and is joint-second with four players - Spain's Azahara Munoz, South Korea's Park In-bee, Australia's Minjee Lee, and England's Jodi Ewart Shadoff - on a two-round total of 139, stayed within striking distance for her first LPGA Tour win in Asia despite a mixed bag of four birdies and three bogeys.
After three straight birdies from the 14th hole, she dropped a shot on the 18th and was not happy with her game, even though like Olson, she preached patience.
When asked which was her strongest part of her game this week, Jutanugarn said: "Nothing yet. I feel like I missed all the putts... even my irons are not that good to have good chances to make birdies. So, I have to work on everything."
Meanwhile, Park, the only player to have won this tournament more than once, and is looking for a hat-trick after wins in 2015 and 2017.
The 30-year-old former world No. 1 and seven-time Major champion, who is playing her first event of the year, said: "My putter is still a little bit rusty, so I'm trying to get the speed and the breaks right.
"I always feel quite comfortable playing in Singapore... I just love the atmosphere, the place, the golf course. It really suits my eye, and, I really don't mind the windy conditions."
Following the withdrawals of defending champion Michelle Wie, Amy Yang and Kim Sei-young, 60 players remain in the field, including Singaporean Amanda Tan, who is last with a two-round total of 23-over after shooting 12 over yesterday.