U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Mirim Lee's 64 Leads Way After Round 1 at CordeValle July 7, 2016 | San Martin, Calif. By David Shefter, USGA

Mirim Lee registered a championship-record 10 birdies in shooting an 8-under 64 on Thursday at CordeValle. (USGA/JD Cuban)

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The so-called marquee group on Thursday at CordeValle ended up ceding the Round 1 spotlight to another trio.

Most of the pre-championship focus was on the afternoon grouping of Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson and Lexi Thompson – Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings – but the 8:44 a.m. group stole their thunder in Round 1 of the 71st U.S. Women’s Open Championship.

Mirim Lee, Cristie Kerr and Lizette Salas were a combined 15 under par, with the former shooting a season-best, 8-under 64 for a three-stroke lead over Kerr, Minjee Lee and 2015 Women’s Open runner-up Amy Yang.

By contrast, the Ko-Henderson-Thompson grouping was a combined 7 over, with Ko leading the way with a 1-over 73. They will start at 8:28 a.m. Friday and will be playing catch-up with the current leaders.

“I don't know what course she played, maybe the ladies tees,” joked Ko of Mirim Lee’s round. “But she played fantastic.”

Brittany Lang, Kelly Tan and Anna Nordqvist were in a three-way tie for fifth at 4-under 68. Another three players were tied for eighth at 3-under 69: 2009 champion Eun-Hee Ji, Moriya Jutanugarn and Sydnee Michaels.

In Gee Chun, who is bidding to become the first repeat champion in 15 years, opened with a 73.

There certainly was enough red on the board Thursday to make the adjacent Clos LaChance Winery happy. In all, 37 players bettered par, with 23 coming in the morning wave before the course began to firm up from another full day of sunshine. That total ranks fourth all-time for a single Women’s Open round and is the second-most for an opening round behind the 44 under-par rounds at Old Waverly in 1999.

“When I played my practice rounds, I thought the scores were going to be low,” said Lang. “I didn't want to say it [because] you don't want to jinx yourself. The course is definitely not easy by any means. But for a U.S. [Women’s] Open, it feels like you can really make some birdies and get at some of the pins.”

Taking advantage of ideal weather – sunny skies with light breezes out of the south and east – Lee, 25, of the Republic of Korea, registered a championship-record 10 birdies against two bogeys in besting her lowest score of 2016 by three strokes.

Feeding off Lee’s performance, Kerr, 38, of Scottsdale, Ariz., posted seven birdies against two bogeys. Had they played better-ball, the two would have combined for a 12-under 60.

World No. 1 Lydia Ko sits nine stroke behind leader Mirim Lee after shooting a 73 in the first round on Thursday. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

“It’s fun to see your fellow competitors playing well,” said Salas, whose solid 2-under 70 paled in comparison. “I had to stay in it. I didn’t want to be the only one over par or at even. Mirim was just putting her brains out and it was fun to see.”

Calling the course perfect, Lee, who won twice on the LPGA Tour in 2014 and owns three victories on the LPGA of Korea Tour, hit 17 of 18 greens and totaled 27 putts in posting the second-lowest opening round in Women’s Open history. Only Helen Alfredsson’s 8-under 63 in 1994 at Indianwood Golf & Country Club bettered Lee’s score.

While Lee came into the championship without a victory since the 2014 Reignwood LPGA Classic, she did tie for fourth in last month’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the second of the year’s five women’s majors.

“I think everything was good, like driver is good and then iron is good,” said Lee, who missed the cut in her most recent start, the Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship. “Putting, a couple of missed putts, but not bad.”

Kerr, meanwhile, has struggled to regain her 2015 form, when she posted two wins, including the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. While she has made 14 of 16 cuts in 2016, there has been only one top 10 (Volunteers of America Texas Shootout). Much of the problem has centered on her driver. She has tinkered all year to find the right shaft and clubhead, but appears to have found one she likes this week.

“I can’t blame everything on the club, obviously, but when you’re struggling to hit fairways, it makes the game a lot harder,” said Kerr, who ranks 68th in driving accuracy and 49th in scoring. “And then the mental game gets off.

“But I knew when I found the driver this week that it just felt so much like my old driver. We found the right combination and even if I missed a little bit I could feel what I did wrong, I could feel the difference. I'm just happy that we worked it out.”

Minjee Lee, 20, of Australia, enjoyed her breakout moment 90 minutes north of CordeValle in 2012, when she claimed the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced Golf Club against one of the strongest field in the championship’s history. In the  semifinals, she beat defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn, who posted three consecutive LPGA Tour victories earlier this season. Since turning professional in 2014, Lee has won twice on the LPGA Tour, including the Lotte Championship in Hawaii three months ago.

Although she is 13th in the Rolex Rankings, she often is overlooked among the young standouts on tour due to the success of Ko, Henderson and Thompson, all of whom won major championships in their teens.

That could change this week. Lee’s round was highlighted by an eagle 2 on No. 6, along with four birdies. Her lone bogey came at the par-3 12th.

“It feels good,” said Lee. “I know it's only the first round, but starting off well is as important as not losing it. I think I'm in a great position and, yeah, hopefully just keep going and play well tomorrow, too.”

Yang, 26, posted the best round among the afternoon wave, thanks to a 4-under 32 on the inward nine.

“The course was a lot drier than the last three days of practice,” said Yang, who also finished second to countrywoman Na Yeon Choi in 2012 at Blackwolf Run. “And also it was much windier out there. But I hit so many solid shots, especially from the tee boxes.”

As for Ko, Henderson and Thompson, Friday’s round could be pivotal if they expect to contend. They will play in the morning, when the majority of the low scores were logged in Round 1.

“Hopefully tomorrow,” said Ko, “all three of us can play a lot better and go from there.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

 

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