Golf-Shoal Creek a happy hunting ground for Australian golfers

SHOAL CREEK, Ala., May 31 (Reuters) - Sarah Jane Smith is an unlikely candidate to make it back-to-back major championship victories by Australian players at Shoal Creek, but compatriot Wayne Grady wasn't exactly favourite to win the men's event 28 years ago either.

Smith's recent results have been dreadful but she felt she was not far away from playing well, and picked a great time to strike form when she carded a five-under 67 for a share of the first round lead at the U.S. Women's Open on Thursday.

"It's been a rough month," said Smith, who missed five cuts in her past six starts before righting the ship at the biggest championship in women's golf.

"I haven't handled it that well.

"I just felt like it's been close and that's been the hard part is not getting a chance to play an extra couple of rounds on the weekend.

"I made a few changes in my putting over the last few weeks. I have seen some better rolls, so it was nice to see them go in today."

Smith was only six years old when Grady won the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek.

She knows nothing of that week when Grady drove the ball with laser-like precision to avoid the most punishing rough he had ever seen and earn the Wanamaker Trophy.

At least Smith knew, sort of, who won back then.

"Wayne Grady, right?" she said when quizzed about it, before adding, "I don't know what year."

At least Smith guessed correctly, unlike another Australian in this week's field, 22-year-old Minjee Lee, who recently guessed that Greg Norman had won the 1990 PGA.

Smith, meanwhile, paid credit to her coach Sean Foley for keeping her spirits up during her lean stretches.

Foley used to instruct Tiger Woods.

"I worked with him for about four years, a couple of years before he started with Tiger," Smith said.

"And then (suddenly) he was so busy that I wasn't getting to see him, so I saw a couple of other people.

"In that time, he's always been a mentor. He always keep in touch. Sometimes I think he's better for me off the golf course, too.

"He's basically like a sports psychologist on the side. He's been amazing."

(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Ian Ransom)