Chella Choi, Jennifer Kupcho and Gemma Dryburgh set the pace after 18 holes at the inaugural ISPS Handa World Invitational presented by Modest! Golf Management in Northern Ireland. Each player shot 7-under par 66 around Galgorm Castle Golf Club on Thursday to open a one-stroke advantage.
A two-time winner on the Rose Ladies Series in 2020 at Buckinghamshire Golf Club and Royal St. George’s Golf Club, site of the 2021 Open Championship, Dryburgh is making her seventh LPGA start on the season. She’s found frustration in hovering around the top of the alternate list at numerous events, but her patience paid off in securing her lowest score since the second round of the 2019 Meijer Classic for Simply Give.
“I’ve actually been playing quite well recently, just nothing has clicked,” said Dryburgh, who signed a bogey-free scorecard highlighted by five birdies and an eagle at the par-5 1st. “I knew a round like this was coming. Yeah, [No. 1] was actually my 10th hole. I hit 7-wood in there, 10 yards on a bit left center to six or seven feet.
“Have to take opportunities when I can. It’s hard to get a rhythm going when you don’t get into every event. That has been frustrating. My game has been going in the right direction so nice to see it pay off.”
Kupcho recorded eight birdies in the first round including four over the final five holes, to share the lead. It’s the second time in 2021 that she is part of a three-way tie atop the first-round leaderboard (joining the Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala in March).
The Wake Forest University alumna is also particularly fond of the unique tournament format pitting 144 men and 144 women on the same courses, at the same time, for equal prize funds. It helps to have a familiar Demon Deacon in Dublin native Paul McBride competing out of the men’s draw to provide good memories from her college days.
“It’s really fun to be out here with them, even to see a college teammate on the men’s side. It’s cool to see different guys that you don’t see every week,” Kupcho said after setting her career-low score to par for an opening round. “On No. 6, I made a bogey, really just hit it off the planet. I was in the middle of the trees and surprised I found my ball, honestly. Then to get to No. 8, especially since I hadn’t played Nos. 5-9 yet, I didn’t realize it was as long of a hole as it was. Ended up hitting hybrid, then hybrid in and made a long putt. That really helped to see that putt fall.”
Following an eagle at No. 1, Choi never looked back playing in the final grouping of the afternoon wave. Excluding match play events, the performance marks the sixth time in Choi’s 13-year career that she has held or shared the 18-hole lead and first since the 2018 JTBC Founders Cup.
With rains putting a damper on practice rounds and Wednesday’s pro-am, Choi was one of the few who saw all 18 holes at both the Galgorm Castle and Massereene courses. Her gameplan of getting off to a fast start will remain the same with a new challenge awaiting.
“I think when I played with [Belfast native] Olivia [Mehaffey], she gave me a lot of good luck,” said Choi, who opened the first round with eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie. “Hit driver really good [on No. 1] and second shot I hit 3-hybrid to five feet, made eagle. When I played my practice round, I only remember like holes 1-7, so I thought Nos. 1-3 are a easy start to the golf course. I really wanted a good score to start, made that my goal today.
“I played the Pro-Am yesterday [at Massereene] and I played all the holes, so I know the golf course. better than here, I remember. The greens are in pretty good condition and fairways a little wider.”
Emma Talley fired a 6-under 67 at Galgorm Castle to sit solo fourth, just one stroke back. Then a group of four players are tied for fifth at -5 including Englishwomen Charley Hull and Georgia Hall, as well as Min Seo Kwak, who carded the low round of the day at the par-72 Massereene Golf Club of 5-under 67.
In the men’s draw, Jordan Smith charged out front with an 8-under par 62 at Galgorm Castle Golf Club, which plays as a par 70 for the gentleman.