There’s a seven-way tie at the top of the leaderboard at the TOTO Japan Classic after round one in Ibaraki, Japan.
Seven golfers finished at 6-under par Friday, including two Americans – Lizette Salas and Jane Park – Min-Young Lee of South Korea, Japan’s own Nasa Hataoka, Saiki Fujita, and Ai Suzuki, and the defending champion, Shanshan Feng of China.
Feng was only 1-under through 11 holes, but made five birdies in her last seven holes to climb into a tie for the lead. She looks to become the first golfer on the LPGA Tour to defend a title in 2017.
“I did start the day slowly, just like usual, and then I got my first birdie on the eighth hole finally. After that I was like that’s just the first of many, and then my ball striking was very good on the back nine,” said Fang. “My 5-iron was really working so it left me a lot of birdie chances and I even missed one five-foot birdie. I still made like four in a row in the last five holes so I’m really happy about that.”
In her last six starts, Feng has finished in the top seven five times, and is riding a hot streak into her title defense this week.
“What I did today was good, and I think I just stick to my same plan,” she explained. “I believe if my ball striking is as good as normal then I’ll give myself a lot of birdie chances every day. So, if my putting is working I should be able to shoot lower scores.”
Salas, who bogeyed her first hole of the day but bounced back with seven birdies over the rest of her round, is on a hot streak. She’s finished in the top five in three of her last four events, but is still looking for her first win of the year.
She says she’s been feeling confident through the Asia Swing, and admits she’s been ‘right on the bubble’ of playing extremely well. She explains she’s been staying in her comfort zone these last few weeks, and had a sense of calm arriving at the Taiheyo Club this week.
“I feel really confident with these greens,” she said. “They’re slick (and) they’re fast, which are the kind of greens I like to be on. My iron play has been improving so far, and I’ve been making clutch putts when I need to.”
Park is also looking for her first win of the year, having notched just two top-10 finishes in 2017.
Looking for a spark, her whole bag has basically been changed around this week, putting different shafts in her irons, a different head in her driver, different shafts in her wedges, and a new grip on her putter.
She says she’s feeling a lot more consistent with her clubs now, and it showed on Friday, as she made just one bogey and ended her day with four straight birdies.
“The greens are super soft and receptive and you can go at a lot of these flags. If you’re putting well you’re going to shoot a low score,” she said. “Hopefully I can keep that up for the weekend.”
South Korea’s Sei Young Kim and Chae-Young Yoon are tied for 8th at 5-under along with Anna Nordqvist, who has won twice on the LPGA Tour this year including The Evian Championship.
Nordqvist said she had been hitting it well of late but hasn’t been seeing her putts fall, admitting she had a frustrating week on the greens at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia.
“It’s been overwhelming since Evian,” she stated. “I’ve been starting to do my thing and I feel like today… I got a few more putts to drop.”
13 golfers are just a shot further back at 4-under including Houston native Stacy Lewis, fresh off the Houston Astros’ World Series victory, Lexi Thompson, who fired a 6-under par 30 on her back nine, Lydia Ko, who is still looking for her first victory of the year, world No. 1 So Yeon Ryu, who is battling a shoulder injury, and Brittany Altomare, who lost in a playoff to Nordqvist at The Evian Championship.
Altomare said the crowds Friday in Japan were unbelievable.
“The people are so nice and there are so many fans out there and it’s just the first day. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the weekend,” she explained. “I love playing in front of big crowds, so it’s fun.”
Michelle Wie, after getting most of her clubs rebuilt after a bit of a travel mishap earlier in the week, fired a 4-over-par 76 to sit in 76th place.