WOBURN - They put some beef on the bone at Woburn Golf Club for the AIG Women’s British Open, adding 300 yards to what it played in 2016. But on a windless day, the best players in the world devoured the rain-softened course with perfect greens. Ashleigh Buhai led a brilliant birdie barrage Thursday with a 7-under-par 65 for the first-round lead.
Hinako Shibuno, 20, a JLPGA rookie, is one stroke back along with Danielle Kang. Sung Hyun Park, trying to win a major for the third consecutive year, is at 67 as are Charley Hull, who thrilled the fans on her home course, Moriya Jutanugarn and Megan Khang.
Jeongeun Lee6, looking to be the first woman to win majors at the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open in the same year, is at 68 with Ariya Jutanugarn, winner of the 2016 British Open at Woburn, and Jin Young Ko, trying to join the elite group to win three majors in a year as well as take the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award.
At 69 are In-Kyung Kim, Caroline Masson, Marina Alex, Jenny Shin, Brooke Henderson, Lizette Salas, Carlota Ciganda, Morgan Pressel, Agathe Sauzon and defending champion Georgia Hall as 20 players broke 70, including eight major champions.
Buhai, a 30-year-old South African, has yet to win on the LPGA since joining in 2008, but has two victories on the Ladies European Tour. Her best finish this year is T-11 at both the ISPS Handa Vic Open and the Pure Silk Championship.
“Yesterday, I played in the practice round and the wind was like 30 K's an hour (20 mph), and I was like, ‘whoa, this is brutal,’” Buhai said. “But then today was perfect golfing conditions. Everything you wanted – soft greens, hardly in the wind and you could throw it at the pin.”
Buhai opened with a 70 last week at the Evian Championship and finished T-37. At the Marathon Classic before that she had a first-round 67 and ended up T-30. And a week earlier at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship she started with a 66 and was T-33.
“In my last few tournaments I've had three good rounds and one not so good round, so I'm hoping this is the week I can do four good rounds,” Buhai said.
Shibuno, who is No. 46 in the Rolex Rankings, has a pair of JLPGA victories this year, including one of the Japanese majors. She was one over par through seven holes then made seven birdies over the final 11 holes, scorching the inward nine in 30 strokes.
“It's really similar to Japanese courses, so I really played relaxed and confident,” Shibuno said. “I'm really, really surprised at my position. My short game was so good. I'm so surprised.”
Kang, 26, has been one of the most consistent players on tour since winning the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She had six top-10s in 2017, eight last year and already has eight this year. No. 2 on the U.S. Solheim Cup points list, she’s a cinch to be in Scotland in September when the Yanks take on Europe.
“I like that it challenges every part of your game,” Kang said about Woburn, which is a parkland course. “It fits my game way better,” she said. “I feel like my track record on links golf, it's not very good. I like if I have to hit 165, it goes 165 instead of hitting in one place and ending up another.”
Park would take a major step toward the career grand slam by adding the Women’s British Open to the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA. “I played on this course back in 2016, so I'm very comfortable with it,” she said. “David, my caddie, helped me a lot today, especially on the green.”
Hull, who learned the game in Kettering, about 40 miles from here, is now based out of Woburn Golf Club. That’s both a plus and a minus this week.
“It puts a bit of pressure on me, but I played quite well today,” she said. “It's quite tricky because I know where not to miss it. I've hit shots around here, and you just don't want to think of them because obviously it's my home golf course.”
Hull, 23, has won once on the LPGA and twice on the LET. Her best finish in a major is T-2 in the 2016 ANA Inspiration. She was in the top 10 in three majors in 2018 and in the top 20 twice this year before finishing T-30 at Evian.
“The last hole is actually playing quite tricky into the wind,” Hull said. “I hit a 5-iron. I think the last time I played here in the British Open [in 2016] it was a 9-iron, so that shows you how they've lengthened the course this year, which is good.”
While Woburn is Hull’s home course, it was quite welcoming to all the players on Thursday. Whether it remains as hospitable all week only time will tell. But on this day, the best in the world felt Woburn’s warm embrace and the scores showed it.