Pattaya - South Korean Ji Eun-hee stunned the field at the US$1.6 million Honda LPGA Thailand on Thursday, carding a record opening-round score of 63, nine under par.
The five-time LPGA tour winner sank nine birdies in the last 14 holes to grab a two-shot lead at the Siam Country Club Pattaya Old Course.
In doing so, she also broke the previous opening-day low score of 65 set by American Nicole Castrale and Heather Young when the event was first held in 2006, at the Amata Spring Country Club, Chon Buri.
“I felt really great. I didn’t miss any fairways and missed just two greens,” said the 32-year-old winner of the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Florida last month.
“I changed my swing a little bit and I changed my putting style. I made a lot of putts from there, so, yeah, I got a lot of confidence,” added the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open champion, who is playing just her second tournament of the season after skipping two in Australia recently.
Two shots behind are three players: world No 7 Minjee Lee of Australia, No 17 Danielle Kang of the US and No 67 Jenny Shin of South Korea.
Shin, whose only LPGA crown was the 2016 Volunteers of America, highlighted her round with five successive birdies from the fourth to the eighth. She then gave one stroke back before recovering to sink three more birdies on the way home.
“It was a great start. I hit a shot pretty close, and then that was it. I rolled a few putts here and there, and that got me going,” said the 26-year-old, who is playing her first event of the year.
Lee, 22, from Perth, Western Australia, was the only one of the trio in joint second not to blemish her scorecard, which featured one eagle and five birdies.
“It was a bogey-free day. I started with six pars, which was a little bit slow, before I finished with three birdies on the last three holes of the front nine,” said the winner of four LPGA titles. “Then I got a little bit better momentum going into the back nine.”
A stroke behind on 66 are American Jennifer Song and Lizette Salas, Canadian Brooke Henderson and Australian Katherine Kirk.
The best Thai scorer of the day was Ariya Jutanugarn, whose roller-coaster 68 left her five shots off the pace.
The 2013 runner-up hit six birdies and one eagle (on the fifth hole) against two bogeys and a double-bogey at the 17th.
“I was a bit under pressure at the beginning but then things started getting better said the world No 1, who was followed by around 200 fans, an unusually high number for the first day of a tournament in Thailand.
“I was up and down the whole day. I putted so well but still made some mistakes.
“To me this is one of the biggest tournaments. It’s always special to me to play at home with so many fans coming to show their support.”
Her sister Moriya, who finished tied for second last year, shot a 69 and amateur Atthaya Thitikul is a further stroke behind after a 70.
The darling of the crowds, China’s Muni He, hit a 71 in her second appearance at the tournament.
This time, however. she returns with one title under her belt, from the secondary Symetra Tour last year.
“I wanted to come back to Thailand again this year to see how much I’ve improved. I’ve been working really, really hard and I know my game has improved a little bit,” said the 19-year-old.
Another local contender, Thidapa Suwannapura, signed off with a par-72, despite her first ever tournament hole-in-one on the par 3 third.
“The people who are walking with me today, they were like, ‘Go, keep going, keep rolling, keep going!’ I was just looking at it and the ball disappeared. I'm like, ‘Ahhh, okay,’ that's the first time I made a hole-in-one in a tournament, even a professional tournament. That was cool,'' said Thidapa.