CHARLESTON, S.C. — Japan's Mamiko Higa, feeding off encouragement from her sumo wrestler fiance, sizzled on her U.S. Women's Open debut, wielding a hot putter on a scorching morning to take the first-round lead with a six-under-par 65 on Thursday, May 30.
Higa did not have a blemish in her six-birdie performance, a record-low round on debut at the championship.
It earned her a one-shot lead over German qualifier Esther Henseleit and American amateur Gina Kim, the latter helped by an eagle with an eight-iron from 140 yards at her penultimate hole, the par-four eighth.
Kim returned the best score of the players who started in the afternoon and had to cope with a strong westerly sea breeze that strengthened throughout the day.
Kim also almost made albatross at the par-five ninth, where her three-wood second shot from 240 yards just about grazed the hole as it trickled past.
While she missed the subsequent eagle putt, the tap-in birdie as dusk crept over the course was witnessed only by about a dozen spectators, long after most of the large gallery had departed.
Leader Higa did not have high expectations after some mediocre recent form on her home tour, but a co-operative putter is a great way to turn things around.
"I felt really great through 18 holes," said the 25-year-old from Tokyo. "Putting was the best thing."
World number 49 Higa and her fiance, Ikioi Shota, are a celebrity couple in Japan, where Shota is a successful professional sumo wrestler.
"He just said to me: 'Have fun and enjoy yourself'," Higa said of the advice he had offered.
Higa has had higher expectations placed upon her after she twice won the Japan amateur championship before turning professional in 2012.
She has accrued five Japan LPGA Tour victories, and last year made her mark on the international stage by finishing equal fourth at the Women's British Open.
Henseleit also had a good amateur career, and has quickly adjusted since turning professional early this year, a constant presence on leaderboards on the Ladies European Tour.
She barely got into this week's field after losing a playoff at a sectional qualifier in England, which left her as the first alternate, but got a reprieve when some spots opened up.
While Higa, Henseleit and Kim got off to quick starts, some of the pre-championship favorites were slow to get going.
World number one Ko Jin-young bogeyed four of her first 10 holes en route to a one-over 72, the same score as defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn, who salvaged her day with birdies at her final two holes.
The U.S.'s Korda sisters Nelly and Jessica, did considerably better, with both carding 69, Nelly in the morning and Jessica in the afternoon.
It did, however, make for a long day for parents Petr and Regina, who tracked all 36 holes, their normal practice when their daughters are on opposite sides of the draw.
"That's a long walk," said Jessica.