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(Reuters) - Red-hot Ariya Jutanugarn put herself in prime position in pursuit of a third successive LPGA victory as she fired an opening seven-under 65 at the inaugural PGA Volvik Championship in Michigan on Thursday.
Ariya did not even carry a driver in her bag, but that did not stop her from bagging seven birdies in a bogey-free round that put her one stroke behind LPGA veteran Christina Kim, who has served as a friend and mentor to the 20-year-old Thai, who at one point missed 10 cuts in a row in her rookie season.
“I’m just so proud of her,” Kim, 32, said of Ariya after the American shot five-under 31 on her second nine for a sizzling 64 at Travis Pointe Country Club in Ann Arbor. “She’s such an incredible young woman.
"I think that for her it was just a matter of breaking the shell and getting over that first hump and getting that first win, and she is going to be just an absolute world beater."
Ariya, coming off back-to-back wins at the Yokohama Tire Classic and Kingsmill Championship, echoed a mutual admiration for Kim, whose first of three LPGA titles came in 2003.
"She’s very, very, very nice person. She great," the young Thai said. "Last year I played bad and she the only person come and talk to me like, 'Keep going.' She’s such a nice person.”
The two friends enjoyed a nice cushion over the chasing pack, with Australian Minjee Lee, Ryu So-yeon of South Korea and American Alex Marina equal third on 68.
Ariya has a chance to become the first player to win three consecutive LPGA tournaments since Park In-bee pulled off the trifecta in 2013.
Park, meanwhile, was forced to withdraw for the second week in a row due to a nagging thumb injury after gamely struggling to an 84 that included a quintuple-bogey nine on the par-four 10th hole.
“Well, it was a torture out there today, but ... I really wanted to finish it off today and I just didn’t want to give it up in the middle of the round like last week,” Park explained.
“I’m just really restricted on my swing, to make a couple movements it’s painful."
Park is planning to skip next week’s ShopRite LPGA Classic and try to tee it up again and defend her title at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship major in a fortnight.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Andrew Both