SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Few were surprised to see Inbee Park's 67 sitting atop the U.S. Women's Open leader board for the better part of Thursday's opening round. After all, she is the world's top-ranked player and winner of the year's first two major championships.
But Ha-Neul Kim?
Near closing time on Thursday evening at Sebonack Golf Club, Kim, ranked 44th and making her U.S. Women's Open debut, did Park one stroke better. Kim shot a 6-under-par 66, the fourth-lowest opening round in championship history.
"I was very nervous coming in, and I thought in the practice round that the course was very difficult," said Kim, 24, of Korea, through an interpreter. "Before playing today I thought that even par would be a very good score for me."
Following Kim and Park are fellow Korean I.K. Kim, Sweden's Caroline Hedwall and Anna Nordqvist, and Lizette Salas at 4-under-par 68. Paz Echeverria of Chile and Maude-Aimee Leblanc of Canada shot 3-under-par 69.
All totaled, Sebonack yielded 36 rounds of even par or lower on a day when the course's setup at 6,548 yards – 273 yards shorter than the listed 6,821-yard maximum length –caught many in the field by surprise. USGA officials anticipated heavier winds that never materialized.
Notables to take advantage of Sebonack's generosity were U.S. Women's Open champions Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Juli Inkster, who is making a record 34th appearance, and Lydia Ko, the world's top-ranked amateur. Each shot even-par 72. Also, Kyung Kim and Canadian Brooke Mackenzie Henderson shot 71 and are the low amateurs.
Ha-Neul Kim was exempt into this year's U.S. Women Open as a result of winning the 2012 Korean LPGA money title. She displayed why with a six-birdie, bogey-free round that did not appear to fray her nerves.
"I had six birdies. They were all within tap-in range, so I felt like my putting wasn't really tested, but my tee-to-green, I was very good," said Kim, the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year whose biggest win came at the 2011 Hite Cup, which is a major on the Korean circuit.
While Ha-Neul Kim created the late buzz, 7-year-old Sebonack, which sits hard on Great Peconic Bay, was the talk of the day.
Park, for example, stepped to her opening shot on Thursday morning wary of the hole to her. With the teeing ground moved up 28 yards, she had not viewed the hole from that vantage point during her practice rounds.
The yardage proved to be only a slight distraction as she made birdie on the 359-yard, par-4 10th hole.
"I was able to take some pins where the USGA was a little generous on us today," Park said. "A lot of tees were moved up. So instead of hitting 5-irons, we were hitting 9-irons, and that was making the course much easier. I was actually able to go for some pins and give myself a lot of opportunities today. I made a lot of putts and didn't leave much out there."
Park was not alone in being vexed by the distances.
"My caddie [Jonny Scott], I think, he had some headaches today," said I.K. Kim. "He had to walk off from all the way back [of the teeing grounds]. But for me, he gave me numbers where to hit it, and that's all I did.
"But it was kind of surprising, because it wasn't like one or two. Every hole was kind of moved forward. So you can't really think about where the tees are different. But I think definitely shorter makes it easier on a few holes, hitting irons to the green."
Stacy Lewis, the No. 2-ranked player in the world who opened with a 71, hit two pitching wedges and a 9-iron into her first three greens and knew immediately that Sebonack was receptive to low scores.
"It just played differently," said Lewis, who won two consecutive tournaments earlier this year and held the world No. 1 ranking for a four-week stretch before Park. "The greens were more receptive from [the forward tees]. It was just a different course today."
While Sebonack may have been playing shorter, reigning champion Na Yeon Choi was not of the belief that it was any easier. In fact, Choi could have been playing neighboring National Golf Links of America for how differently the Jack Nicklaus-Tom Doak design played.
"I think the course is pretty difficult, but today a lot of the tee boxes moved up 30 or 40 yards like on many holes, so actually I felt like it's just different holes," said Choi after a 1-under 71. "Almost every hole was a different target, different aim. Then the wind was switching a lot out there, so it wasn't easy for a club selection."
Echeverria, 28 and making her U.S. Women's Open debut, was nonplussed by Sebonack's leniency.
"I'm not impressed about this course," she said. "If you hit it good, you are in the right spot. You can use the slopes.
"For the way I hit the ball today, I don't mind if they put it longer. I think that will benefit me."
Players should watch what they wish for.
After all, this remains the U.S. Women's Open.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.