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Ha-Neul Kim leads Inbee Park by one in US Women’s Open

Kim Ha-neul of South Korea reacted to her tee shot on the 17th hole Thursday.

Adam Hunger/REUTERS

Kim Ha-neul of South Korea reacted to her tee shot on the 17th hole Thursday.

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s true at any professional golf tournament, especially so at 72-hole major championships. You can’t win the event on the first day, but you can certainly lose it.

With the waters calm coming in off Great Peconic Bay and the wind down, scoring at Sebonack Golf Club was surprisingly low for the first round of the 68th US Women’s Open. There were 27 players under par, and nine more at even-par 72.

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The name near the top, however, was not a surprise.

Inbee Park, perhaps the most dominant player in professional golf these days, began her quest for history with a fairly stress-free 67, which left her one stroke behind Ha-Neul Kim, and one in front of Lizette Salas, Caroline Hedwall, Anna Nordqvist, and I.K. Kim. Park, already a five-time winner this season and the top-ranked player in women’s golf, can become only the second player to win the first three LPGA Tour majors to start the year. Babe Zaharias pulled off the rare triple in 1950.

Nerves are always up at the US Women’s Open. So is the pressure. So, too, are the scores most years, but Sebonack offered reduced resistance on Thursday. There were 426 birdies by the field, an average of nearly three per player. The large group of under-par scores included Park, which has become a recurring theme in 2013. She’s won her last two starts, including the LPGA Championship, which was her second straight major victory and third of her career.

“I do have a lot of confidence in myself at the moment,” said Park, whose first of seven career tour wins came at the 2008 US Women’s Open. “The way I’m playing, the way things have been going, the way I’ve been getting the luck, I think I am in the zone. I’ve been playing the best of my career. I really just want to enjoy the moment.”

Park and the others didn’t know what to expect from Sebonack, a relatively new course (2006) built by two of golf’s biggest design names, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak. It’s the first US Golf Association event held at the course, and the first time the US Women’s Open has ever come to Long Island.

With massive, undulating greens, the possibility of stretching a firm, fast track beyond 6,700 yards, and factoring in the wind that frequently whips around the property, it was assumed that pars would be as difficult to find out here as comfort or confidence. This is, after all, the US Women’s Open.

But those weren’t in short supply. Nor were birdies. Hedwall made eight in her 68; Maude-Aimee Leblanc (69) and Catriona Matthew (70) had seven, and 11 others, including Kim, the leader, had six.

“I was actually able to go for some pins and give myself a lot of opportunities,” Park said. “The USGA was a little generous on us today. I didn’t leave much out there.”

Park opened with a birdie on No. 10, added another at No. 14, then had three more in a four-hole stretch, at Nos. 1, 2, and 4. Five of her six birdies came on par-4 holes; Park had nine 3s on her scorecard.

Kim didn’t have a bogey, the only player without a dropped shot. Not bad for her first competitive round at the US Women’s Open. When she teed off, Kim had noticed the 67 put up by Park, her fellow South Korean, and someone she’s looked up to, despite both being 24.

“When Inbee shot 5 [under], I thought, ‘Wow, how did she shoot that score?’ ” Kim said. “Then I went out and beat her.”

Kim doesn’t have much experience playing on the LPGA Tour. She’s won the last two money titles on the Korean LPGA Tour, capturing a major on that tour in 2011, part of six career victories. Her best finish in the United States is a tie for 11th at the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

South Korea has produced a large number of golfers making waves on the LPGA Tour, and they’ve done especially well at the US Women’s Open, winning four of the last five titles. There’s a long way to go, but Kim seemed perfectly at ease on such a big stage.

“I’m enjoying myself. I’m just happy to be here and to be playing in this big event,” Kim said. “I’m not really thinking about winning or results, but enjoying the moment.”

Her first round brought lots of enjoyment. Six birdies, including one at the par-5 eighth (Kim started on No. 10) that pushed her into the lead. Solid iron shots were the primary reason; Kim said all six of her birdies were from tap-in range.

“I felt like my putting wasn’t really tested,” Kim said, “but my tee-to-green was very good.”

Count on all facets eventually being tested at Sebonack. Any tournament run by the US Golf Association demands it.

“I was nervous coming in, and I thought in the practice round that the course was very difficult,” Kim said. “Before playing today I thought that even par would be a very good score for me.”

Kim did six better than that, giving an unknown player the unlikely lead. It’s the name right behind her, though, that figures to stay in contention all week. Too much history to be made.

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