SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There’s always a sense of accomplishment — at least before the first round starts — by those players who have qualified for the US Women’s Open, the most prestigious tournament in women’s golf.
Perhaps none of the 156 players is more thankful for being at Sebonack Golf Club for the 68th edition than Natalie Gulbis. Golf’s glamour girl was diagnosed with malaria earlier this year — contracted during the tour’s opening swing through Asia — and has been limited to nine events, with only one finish better than 46th.
Playing in her 12th US Women’s Open, Gulbis got off to a quick start on Thursday, shooting a 2-under-par 70 to sit tied for ninth, four shots behind leader Ha-Neul Kim.
“It’s always great to shoot par any day at the US Open, and under par is even better,” Gulbis said. “If you hit good shots, you were rewarded for it. I hit it well most of the day, so I stayed away from the tall stuff that causes stress during a US Open.”
Gulbis’s stress came earlier this year, after being diagnosed with malaria. She withdrew from the tournament in Singapore in February, then missed two more. Gulbis said she didn’t feel 100 percent healthy until the LPGA Championship, earlier this month.
“It was better that they knew how to treat it and what to do. That always helps when they have a clear understanding of what to do,” Gulbis said. “They told me it was going to be six weeks, but I had an athlete mentality that I could come back sooner. They were right.”
Gulbis, whose best finish in a US Women’s Open was a tie for fourth in 2005, birdied three straight holes (Nos. 7-9) on Thursday, then closed her round with a birdie at the 18th hole.
The tournament couldn’t have started much worse for Michelle Wie, who made a quadruple-bogey 8 on her first hole and wound up shooting 80. It would have been higher, if not for a strong finish: Wie birdied three of her final four holes.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong today. It’s just tough on this golf course once you get started on the wrong foot,” said Wie, who also made a double-bogey 7 at the 15th and shot a 45 on the back nine. “But I’m proud of myself for making three birdies. Hopefully, I can get a couple more birdies tomorrow.”
Wie, the former phenom who tied for third at the US Women’s Open as a 17-year-old, has now opened with a score in the 80s in four of the last six years at this tournament. She’ll need something low on Friday just to make the cut.
Moving on up
With a scorecard yardage of 6,796, Sebonack is the second-longest course in US Women’s Open history, trailing only last year’s site, the East Course at the Broadmoor (7,047).
Players were surprised, however, at how the US Golf Association set up Sebonack for the first round, moving multiple tee markers well forward and taking almost 250 yards off the course length; actual yardage for the first round was 6,548.
“First three holes I had pitching wedge, pitching wedge, 9-iron into, so it was definitely set up a lot easier today, a lot more scoreable,” said Stacy Lewis, who opened with 71. “I was definitely surprised at how many tees were moved up. It was kind of nice to hit 9-iron instead of a 5-iron into the green. It just played differently, it was just a different course today.”
Like they did with the men’s US Open two weeks ago, the USGA grouped the players ranked Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the world together for the first two rounds. In addition to No. 1 Inbee Park (67) and No. 2 Lewis, third-ranked Suzann Pettersen opened with 76. The marquee group begins Round 2 at 1:25 p.m. on Friday . . . Alison Walshe of Westford, Mass., closed with a birdie, but that could only salvage a 77, which left her in a tie for 98th at 5 over. Walsh’s ball-striking was solid: She missed only two fairways, and hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation. But 35 putts proved costly . . . How difficult can Sebonack’s greens be? Gabriella Then and Kirby Dreher were putting for birdie on 16 of the 18 holes. Both shot 77. Dreher had 39 putts, while Then, a 17-year-old amateur, needed 38 . . . There are 19 amateurs in the field, and only two, Kyung Kim and Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, shot under par. Both had 71 . . . Another amateur, 16-year-old Elizabeth Schultz, made an eagle at the par-4 16th hole, which played 398 yards. It was one of six eagles on the day; the other eagle on a non-par 5 was by P.K. Kongkraphan, who made a 2 at the 359-yard 10th . . . Defending champion Na Yeon Choi opened with 71. She’s trying to become the first repeat winner of the US Women’s Open since Karrie Webb in 2000-01.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.