SHOAL CREEK, Ala. (Reuters) - A lack of practice rounds was no problem for Ariya Jutanugarn and Sarah Jane Smith as they joined Lee Jeong-eun in the lead on the opening day at the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday.
More than six inches (150 mm) of rain that soaked the Shoal Creek course between Sunday and Wednesday prevented many players, including Thailand’s Ariya and Australian Smith, from getting in even one full practice round.
But that did not stop them from joining South Korean Lee at five-under 67, good for a two-shot first round lead over a group including 2014 champion Michelle Wie.
Despite the pre-tournament deluges, play began on time and without players being allowed preferred lies as the U.S. Golf Association maintained its record of never permitting competitors the luxury of cleaning their balls in the fairway.
Although the course was damp and downright soggy in places, that did not bother the powerful Ariya, who eschewed her driver in favor of a three-wood off the tee.
The tactic paid off handsomely as she largely avoided the soggy rough and took advantage of soft greens to fire approach shots to within birdie range with monotonous regularity.
An eagle at her 15th hole, the par-five sixth, where she hoisted a five-iron to five feet, capped off a near perfect morning.
“My game was pretty good today,” said Ariya, who arrived in sizzling form after winning the Kingsmill Championship.
Ariya could not play on Monday because her clubs went missing on the flight to Birmingham and then she had to wait patiently on Tuesday when the course was closed due to the wet conditions.
Nine holes on Wednesday was the best she could muster.
“It’s tough for me today because I didn’t see the front (nine),” said Ariya, 22, who became the first Thai player to win a major title when she captured the 2016 Women’s British Open.
Smith, who also had only nine holes’ practice, was almost giddy with delight at her lofty position.
“I’ve never had the lead. I would much rather be playing well than not,” said the 33-year-old journeywoman, who eagled the par-five 11th from 87 yards.
Unlike Ariya and Smith, Lee arrived in town early enough to become well acquainted with the course.
“I came from Korea last Wednesday and I managed to have three rounds of nine holes,” said Lee, who is represented with the number ‘6’ attached to her name to distinguish her from the other five Korean professionals who share the name.
Players expressed surprise at how much it dried out in the 24-hour window of dry weather before the first round.
“It’s mind blowing how great the golf course is,” Wie said after a 69.
Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Ken Ferris / Ian Ransom