Katherine Kirk posted an early-morning 65 and watched the afternoon players struggle in higher winds today, leaving the Australian in charge of her national Open.
An eight-under score with eight birdies and not a single bogey put the 34-year-old from the Sunshine Coast two shots ahead of the field after the first round of the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, with some of the biggest days of her career ahead.
Kirk, a 14-year professional who has made her living in the United States on the LPGA Tour, has been in a lull, sliding outside the top 100 on the money list last year. She has not won a big tournament since 2010.
But she was white hot from the start of her round today when she rammed home three consecutive birdies, and she carried the momentum through to the finish line in pristine, almost breathless conditions rarely seen at Royal Adelaide. She missed just four greens and had only 24 putts, drawing upon her great skill with the short stick.
Like any patriotic Australian, she would love to win here, having had a cluster of top-10 finishes over the years but a best of tied-fourth in 2010 at Commonwealth Golf Club.
"I think it would be my best win ever really,'' Kirk said later, when she was asked what an Australian Open win would mean. "I mean, as a kid, you dream about winning your own national championship. I’ve won a Canadian Open, that felt pretty good but being Aussie, being at home, in front of my family, obviously, (husband) Tom will come down, I’d be like - I’d probably be bawling my eyes out.''
Kirk leads by two shots from Americans Jane Park and Marissa Steen and Taiwan's Min Lee and South Korea's Chella Choi at six-under. Scotland's Michele Thomson (67) is a further shot back.
Of the bigger names, world No. 1 Lydia Ko began rustily with a two-under 71, finishing with a birdie, complaining later that "the putts just would not drop''. But most of the marquee names were near the top of the leaderboard, including Canada's Brooke Henderson (-4), and South Korean Ha Na Jang (-3), both world top-10 players.
World No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn played in the tougher conditions and began with a one-under 73 to remain in contention.
Of the other Australians, Hannah Green (69) and Sarah Jane Smith (70) were the best, but veteran Karrie Webb struggled to a disappointing 74. Minjee Lee (71) and Su Oh (70) both had to contend with the windier afternoon.
Kirk said her challenge now was to put more good rounds together to capitalise. "I guess lately I’ve probably struggled to put four good rounds together, so that’s going to be obviously the key this week, is to get the next three under par. But I feel like I’m hitting it well, I’ve just got to give myself more chances and just stay patient. The birdies are out there, you’ve just got to, like I said, keep giving yourself chances.''
The Queenslander has status on the LPGA Tour this year, but will have to qualify for the majors having seen her world ranking dip to 275. But her husband, Tom, will get a nice surprise when he gets off a plane tonight, returning from the United States. His wife is leading the Open, and playing superbly.
"I still feel like my best golf’s ahead of me, I’ve just got to work a little harder,'' she said. "My ball-striking’s probably the best it’s ever been. I’ve just got to get my short game back to where it was in previous years. So, it’s not quite where I want it to be but I can get around.''
Play resumes tomorrow at 7am at Royal Adelaide, with Jutanugarn at the head of those with morning tee times, due to start off the 10th tee at 7.44am.