Ai Miyazato took dead aim, made another long graceful swing and smacked a 3-wood approach that settled 20 feet from the pin to set up an eagle.
The diminutive Japanese star was as fluid and efficient as ever, making it difficult to tell she was returning from a whiplash injury sustained in a five-vehicle crash after a tournament in Thailand several weeks ago.
Comfortable in the Arizona heat as the temperatures soared into the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius) in her offseason home, Miyazato shot a tournament-record 9-under 63 on Thursday to take a two-stroke lead in the LPGA Founders Cup.
”It’s just beautiful out there,” Miyazato said. ”The weather is just awesome and I was like, `I’m going to do this today.’ And there you go, I shot 9 under. I hit the ball well and my putting was really good and I think I had good course management.”
The nine-time LPGA Tour winner was hurt three weeks ago while riding in a caravan of players on the way to the Bangkok airport. She withdrew the following week in Singapore as a precaution because of stiffness in her neck, shoulder and back.
”Right after Thailand, it was really hard,” Miyazato said. ”Singapore was one of my favorite tournaments and I was really disappointed that I couldn’t play, but I just tried to get nice and easy after that because my neck and my lower back were sore.
”I think I had a nice time off and now I feel fine. Just totally feels good.”
She played a four-hole stretch on the back nine in 5 under, birdieing the par-3 14th, holing her eagle putt on the par-5 15th to take the lead and adding birdies on the par-4 16th and par-3 17th.
”All the time, I could focus like every single shot,” Miyazato said.
Miyazato has a home in Phoenix at the Legacy Golf Resort and finished in a share of second last year on Desert Ridge’s Wildfire layout, a stroke behind top-ranked Yani Tseng of Taiwan.
”I’m just staying home nice and relaxed and it makes me feel good,” Miyazato said. ”It feels like a hometown.”
South Korea’s Jee Young Lee was in second place, opening with a 65 in her first tournament since September.
”No golf like two months, and then I come back to Orlando and I train hard,” Lee said. ”Work hard and practice hard.”
Candie Kung, Brittany Lang, Gerina Piller and Pornanong Phatlum were three strokes back at 66, and Lexi Thompson, Jiyai Shin, Sandra Gal and Katherine Hull-Kirk shot 67.
Shin, her hair dyed orange a year after showing up at the event with a blonde look, won the season-opening Australian Open.
Kung was off with her ball-striking and struggled to make pure contact with her putter.
”I didn’t hit the putts on the center of the face at all the whole time,” Kung said. ”I have absolutely no idea how those balls went in, but I was able to miss my shot close to the hole. I hit about two shots on the clubface today. … I just laugh about today. I actually get mad when I hit it solid all day and don’t make a single putt. It’s weird. It’s golf.”
Tseng, riding a 22-event, 50-week winless streak, had a 70 in the featured group with No. 3-ranked Stacy Lewis and Paul Creamer. Lewis opened with a 68, and Creamer, also shaken up in the accident in Thailand, shot 69.
”It was ugly,” said Lewis, who won in Singapore for her fifth victory in her last 22 tournaments. ”I missed a lot of putts.”
The 18-year-old Thompson rebounded from a double bogey on the par-4 third – her 12th hole – with a birdie on the par-3 fourth and a chip-in eagle on the par-5 fifth.
”I had a few rough holes out there, but I fought back and that’s what golf’s all about,” she said.
Juli Inkster, at 52 the oldest player in the field, topped the group at 68. The Hall of Famer won the last of her 31 tour titles in 2006 at Superstition Mountain.
Michelle Wie opened with a 74. She missed the cut in Australia, finished 45th in Thailand and tied for 45th in Singapore. In 11 rounds this year, Wie has broken 70 only once, closing with a 69 in Singapore after a third-round 77.
DIVOTS: Jane Rah had a double-eagle 2 on No. 15, holing a 3-wood from 226 yards. It was the 32nd albatross in tour history and first since Hannah Yun last year on the same hole in the second round. Rah shot 73. … Jennifer Gleason and Meena Lee had aces. Gleason used a hybrid on the 171-yard 14th, and Lee holed out with a rescue club on the 170-yard sixth. Gleason shot 68, and Lee 76. … Jaclyn Sweeney opened with a 71. She earned a spot in the field last month with a victory in the Symetra Tour’s VisitMesa.com Gateway Classic.