Ally Ewing mounted a late charge to claim the solo lead on day one of the AIG Women’s Open 2023 with a four-under round of 68.
An eagle on the 16th, one of 13 across the day on a hole which proved profitable throughout, catapulted her from a concentrated bunch to the name everyone is now chasing.
Five players sit just one shot behind the American, including major winner Jeongeun Lee6 and 2014 Women’s Amateur champion Emily Kristine Pedersen.
It had looked like the groups that set off in the hour after 9am, which included both Lee6 and Pedersen, had enjoyed the best of the conditions but Ewing impressed as the evening began to draw in to ensure the sun set on the first day with her name shining at the top of the leaderboard.
A positive start for the 30-year-old from Mississippi looked set to be derailed by back-to-back bogeys but the 16th proved a saving grace for plenty of golfers on Thursday and Ewing was no exception.
Twelve players are tied on two-under with a further 14 also in the red and just three shots back from the leader.
The in-form Céline Boutier, who has won the two most recent events, is not one of them after an up-and-down two-over – a score shared by Georgia Hall and reigning Champion Ashleigh Buhai.
Ewing's late lead
Ewing set off for her round just before 1:30pm clear in the knowledge that a good score was anything in the red.
She swiftly moved to one-under on the 3rd before returning to level par with a bogey on the fifth.
A string of three birdies in a row brought her name into the conversation for a share of the overnight lead, but then, on a day of fine margins, back-to-back bogeys on 13th and 14th suggested her claim had ended.
But Ewing knew chances to bounce back were looming and having teed herself up brilliantly with a birdie on the par-4 15th to move to two under, she eagled the low-scoring 16th before holding her nerve with consecutive pars to enter the clubhouse at the summit.
Lee6 headlines five-way share of second
The bunches of heather that line Walton Heath have been mirrored by bunches of players tightly packed on the scoreboard following a day on which scoring proved tricky and no player finished bogey-free.
Nasa Hataoka was among the early leaders and flew to three-under through five before a double bogey at the par-5 6th.
The Japanese player eventually carded a two-under 70 and then faced a wait to see if anyone would overtake her.
It took some time, but three players in a row came down the 18th and signed off for a 69.
Lee6 was the first, birdieing two of her last three holes, but her solo clubhouse lead lasted mere minutes as Emily Kristine Pedersen joined her having moved to three-under on the 16th.
Pedersen admitted her round had not got going during the front nine but a moment of inspiration on the 10th became a momentum swing.
The Dane eagled the 10th hole, picking up two more birdies on the 12th and 16th to see her home with a round of 69 and with only one dropped shot.
She said: “I went slow in the beginning of the round, and then I holed out on 10 and that kind of started a bit of momentum and I rode that wave a bit, so it was nice.
“I hit it really close on 9 but had missed the putt when it was six feet and then obviously holing out on the next boosted the mood and kept me going.”
Delacour delivers late on
The third player to end on three-under also had a start that did not indicate what was to come.
Perrine Delacour was two-over after 11 holes, but bounced back from a bogey at 11th with a birdie on the very next hole.
The Frenchwoman was then unstoppable, making four more birdies, including three from the final three holes.
It felt that that may well be that as far as three-under scores were concerned but, as Delacour had shown, there was an opportunity to kick on down the home stretch.
Jaravee Boonchant followed Delacour’s example with four birdies on the back nine, including two in a row at the 16th and 17th.
The young Thai challenger has missed the cut at the previous three majors but is now in the hunt for a maiden title.
Amy Yang was the final player to join the group on three-under, with an eagle on the 16th that rescued her round.
The South Korean had been in the flow with three birdies in four holes to kick off the back nine but was stifled by a bogey on the 14th.
Yang will be the first of the top six to tee off on Tuesday with a tee time of 7:25am, giving her the chance to set the tone early.
Hull heads the Brit pack
Charley Hull is known for her aggressive style of play but that approach up against the fearful heather was fraught with risk.
Hull was not always accurate off the tee but back-to-back birdies, aided by a fine second shot on to the green at the 11th, suggested her approach was paying off.
A double-bogey after locating heather on the 13th brought her back down to earth but she was flying again after an eagle on the 16th and will take plenty of confidence into Friday at one-under.
Mel Reid got the AIG Women’s Open underway with the first tee shot at 6:30am and the 35-year-old started her round with three bogeys before an eagle gave her hope on the sixth.
More birdies followed with three in a row between 14 and 16 but consecutive bogeys meant she ended where she started on level-par.
2018 Champion Georgia Hall experienced a similar start with two bogeys in the opening two holes but a rally on the 12th and 13th set up a push towards the top of the leaderboard.
Those hopes faltered with a double-bogey on 17, to end on two-over, but Hall remains only six shots back and the potential high winds tomorrow could see plenty of leaderboard changes.
England’s Charlotte Heath is in a shared lead for top amateur with Valentina Rossi and Julie Lopez Ramirez, with the trio posting one-over.
Thitikul’s rollercoaster ride
If there was a prize for the most eventful round of the day it would go to Atthaya Thitikul, with her final score of two-under far from telling the whole story.
The two-time Smyth Salver winner began her round with a quadruple-bogey as she found the rough with her tee shot before hitting a tree with her next, which took her further into the thick stuff.
Another bogey followed at the fifth before a run of three birdies between the seventh and 11th breathed life into her round.
Just as hopes of a remarkable comeback started to bubble up, Thitikul recorded a double-bogey at the 15th.
But again, she pulled the fans back in with a stunning long-range eagle, sealed with a monster putt, on the 16th, before completing a two-over 74.
Big names bunch up
The top two players in the Rolex Rankings sit next to each other on the leaderboard as both Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko carded rounds of one-over.
For Korda, it was a case of one step back and then one step forward as the American was never more than one-over for her round.
But at the same time, Korda could not capitalise on the three birdies she made as she ran out of time to respond to the bogey she made on the 17th.
Her playing partner Lydia Ko was a shot further back after two bogeys in the final four holes.
Boutier showed signs of the fatigue that back-to-back wins understandably bring, her round featuring five bogeys before a late rally kept her in contention at two-over.
Last year’s Champion Buhai had a middling afternoon, but after double-bogeying the fourth to slip to three-over early on, she fought hard to get in at two-over.