MIAMI: Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith and Taiwan’s Chien Pei-Yun, each seeking her first LPGA title, both fired bogey-free six-under-par 66s Thursday to share the lead after the opening round of the season-ending Tour Championship.
The showdown at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, features 12 top players vying for a US$1 million season playoff bonus as well as final shots in Player of the Year and low-scoring Vardon Trophy races.
Smith’s best LPGA results of the year were a share of third in the Women’s Australian Open in February and a share of fifth two weeks ago at the Japan Classic. Her best career showing was a share of second at the 2014 Kingsmill Championship.
“It’s feeling good at the moment,” Smith said. “Holed some nice putts. It was a bit rough in the beginning, but holed some nice putts for par and sort of kept it going, and then made some good birdies coming in.”
Chien, an LPGA rookie, managed her best round since July, when she had her lone top-10 tour showing of the year, sharing third at the Marathon Classic.
“I don’t think too much. Just hit the ball,” Chien said. “Just need to more believe myself. I change a little backswing so feel a little bit more solid.
“This has been a good year for me. This is last tournament so I just want to finish it and get some rest.”
New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, the longshot among the 12 players chasing the $1 million bonus prize, fired a 67 to share third with France’s Karine Icher, Spain’s Azahara Munoz, Norway’s Suzann Pettersen and South Korea’s Park Sung-Hyun.
Park had the best start among five players who can take the season bonus with a victory no matter how anyone else fares.
Among the other four, world number one Feng Shanshan of China and Canada’s Brooke Henderson shared 18th on 70 with American Lexi Thompson on 71 and Ryu So-Yeon of South Korea on 72.
Smith eagled the par-5 sixth hole and birdied the par-3 eighth, then began the back nine with another birdie and added back-to-back birdies at the par-5 14th and par-4 15th.
The Aussie said she has slowed her swing tempo and the move has paid dividends.
“It has been coming along,” Smith said. “I’ve been working on a little bit more tempo in my swing. I can get really fast out there. I made a conscious effort a few weeks ago to sort of do it on the golf course, and it has made a huge difference.
“Sort of worked on the same thing in my swing now for almost a couple years. I’m obviously a slow learner. Slowing down has made everything else easier.”
Chien, a back nine starter, birdied the 10th and 11th holes to open her round, added another birdie at 14 and two more at the first and second holes. Her last birdie came at the sixth.
Defending champion Charley Hull of England, who won her first LPGA title at this event last year, opened on 70. — AFP