Hinako Shibuno produced a masterful display of links golf to claim a one-shot lead as Jessica Korda and Louise Duncan also excelled on day one of the AIG Women’s Open.
Muirfield’s first staging of this Championship has generated considerable excitement and fans were certainly not left disappointed on Thursday as scoring proved lower than many had anticipated despite the presence of a stiff breeze for much of the day.
Shibuno, the Champion of 2019 at Woburn, was the class of the field, carding eight birdies on her way to a six-under 65 that put her one ahead of Korda and two better off then Duncan and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez.
World number two Minjee Lee also started strongly, shooting 68 to share fifth with Maja Stark, In Gee Chun, Celine Boutier and Jodi Ewart Shadoff, while 2015 Champion Inbee Park ended the day a shot further back.
Birdies on each of the first three holes set the tone for Shibuno’s performance, with bogeys at the fourth and 14th outweighed by further gains at the fifth, ninth, 11th, 16th and 17th.
The Japanese’s tee shot at 16 epitomised the form she showed throughout, a beautifully struck hybrid leaving a tap-in putt on the par-3.
Shibuno opened with a six-under round on her way to victory three years ago and will hope history repeats as she looks to regain the AIG Women’s Open title.
Her nearest rival on Thursday was Korda, who bounced back from a bogey at the second with four birdies before saving her best work for the penultimate hole.
A terrific approach to the par-5 17th left a putt of around 20 feet and Korda found the centre of the cup to finish with a 66.
Shibuno and Korda both benefited from slightly calmer conditions in the morning, but Duncan – out in the first group at 6:30am - was forced to battle through an early downpour as she followed up her sparkling performance at Carnoustie in 2021 with another fine showing.
Duncan also eagled the 17th and, although a good birdie chance went begging on the final hole, the young Scot, who won the Smyth Salver last year as the best-placed amateur, was delighted with a 67 in only her second start as a professional.
Scoring was tougher for the afternoon wave, but Lopez was bogey-free and also made hay on the more challenging back nine en route to a 67 of her own that left her alongside Duncan in third.
Minjee was similarly impressive as she carded the best score of the superstar grouping featuring each of the world’s top three.
Like Lopez, the Australian came home in 32 to significantly enhance her position – a chip-in at 14 the highlight of her round.
Playing partner Nelly Korda produced several highlight-reel moments of her own, most notably a raking right-to-left eagle putt at the fifth, as she posted a one-under 70 that could easily have been two or three shots better.
However, the third member of Minjee and Korda’s group, world number one Jin Young Ko, was surprisingly out of sorts on her way to a 76 that included six bogeys and just a solitary birdie on the 17th.
Defending Champion Anna Nordqvist also struggled, leaving a number of putts short of the hole as she went round in 74, but there were more encouraging starts for Georgia Hall (70), Atthaya Thitikul, Ariya Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Leona Maguire (all 71).
Rose Zhang’s 72 represented the best score by an amateur on the opening day, just ahead of Mizuki Hashimoto (73), Savannah De Bock and Ingrid Lindblad (both 74).