ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Japan’s Ai Miyazato, celebrating her 23rd birthday, shot a 4-under 68 on Thursday to join Cristie Kerr and five South Korean players atop the crowded leaderboard at the Wegmans LPGA.
“I think it was a good start to my birthday. I want to win a tournament this year,” said Miyazato, one of the biggest female stars in Japanese sports history but winless in 56 career starts on the LPGA Tour.
Jeong Jang, Inbee Park, Song-Hee Kim, Jimin Jeong and Soo-Yun Kang, who holed a 9-wood shot for an ace on the 165-yard seventh hole, also shot 68s.
Kerr, a nine-time tour winner preparing for her title defense next week in the U.S. Women’s Open, is especially mindful of the South Koreans’ passion – and flair.
“They’re all good and they’re all young. It’s pretty amazing,” she said.
Morgan Pressel, Becky Lucidi, Sweden’s Helen Alfredsson and South Korea’s Hee-Won Han, Na On Min, Kyeong Bae and Young-A Yang opened with 69s.
Defending champion Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 player in women’s golf, carded an even-par 72 in cool, blustery conditions at the tight, tree-lined Locust Hill course, one better than Annika Sorenstam. Michelle Wie, who is ranked 200th in the world and received a sponsor exemption, shot a 71.
Ochoa, who won in Rochester in 2005 and 2007, is seeking her seventh win this season. With $1.9 million in earnings, she has a half-million-dollar lead over Sorenstam, whose best finish in four tries here was a second place in 1996.
It was a mostly overcast day and, except for an occasional sprinkle, the rain held off until the early evening.
Kerr said she had a flare-up of “neck issues” that have dogged her for the last six or seven years. She also held the first-round lead last year despite battling a severe head cold.
“Beware of the wounded,” she said.
Sandwiched between two majors – the U.S. Women’s Open is at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn. – the $2 million tournament drew 88 of the top 100 money winners. Among them were rookie Yani Tseng (72) of Taiwan, whose victory at the LPGA Championship two weeks ago dashed Ochoa’s chances of capturing a third consecutive major.
A 14-time champion on the Japanese tour, Miyazato has accumulated 13 top-10 finishes in the last two years, her best outing a runner-up spot to Seon Hwa Lee last July in the HSBC Women’s Match Play Championship.
The highlight of her bogey-free round was a 21-foot birdie putt on No. 18 – her ninth hole – but she lost a chance to take an outright lead on the last hole, missing a 9-footer for birdie on the par-3 ninth.
“I hit it too hard and try to hole it instead of concentrating on my stroke,” she said.
While she has missed the cut in four of 12 outings this year – her season-best performance a tie for 14th at the SemGroup Championship in May – Miyazato is happy with her progress. “I do feel I’m in a really good rhythm,” she said.
Jang chipped in from 117 yards for an eagle on No. 12. Although dogged by arthritis and cysts in her right wrist, the 2005 Women’s British Open champion said she feels propelled by “a lot of good memories” of her triumph here in 2006 – her second tour victory.
“I didn’t win (on tour) last year and this year, and I have a couple of seconds. Maybe I’m ready,” she said.