Looks like experience might not matter at the U.S. Women’s Open, at least not in Thursday’s opening round.
Mamiko Higa shot the lowest round in an open debut with a bogey-free 6-under 65. She was a shot ahead of another first-timer in 20-year-old Esther Henseleit of Germany and 19-year-old American amateur Gina Kim, who played all of two rounds at last year’s event in missing the cut.
“This is maybe one of the top highest level (tournaments) I’ve played in,” the 25-year-old Higa said through an interpreter.
None of them appeared rattled by the moment.
Higa had birdies on three straight and five of her first 10 holes to go to 5-under par before most others got started. Henseleit, also bogey free, had two birdies over her final six holes. And Kim had an eagle and four birdies on her final eight holes.
“It feels amazing,” said Kim, who helped Duke win the women’s NCAA title earlier this month. “This is something I dreamed of as a little girl. So being able to finish out strong like that really shows I’m ready to be here.”
Higa tied for the third-lowest round in U.S. Women’s Open history. Helen Alfredsson holds the record with a 63 in the opening round in 1994.
Celine Boutier of France shot 67.
Kim Sei-young of South Korea and Azahara Munoz of Spain were tied at 68. A group of seven featuring American sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda and another U.S. amateur in Andrea Lee were tied at 69.
Higa has won five times on the Japan LPGA Tour, including a victory in March, but may be best known in her country for marrying sumo wrestler Ikiori last fall on their shared birthday of Oct. 11.
She qualified for the Open as a top-five money winner on the Japan LPGA Tour and is among the top 50 in the world rankings. Still, Higa didn’t hold much hope that she could succeed on a course she hadn’t played before last weekend.
Higa, though, got going quickly with birdies on the third, fourth and fifth holes. She got streaky again on the ninth and 10th, putting a bunker shot within 3 feet for a tap-in birdie on No. 9 and rolling in a 25-footer on the 10th to move to 5 under before much of the field even got going.
Higa struck once more on the par-3 17th with her tee shot landing inside 8 feet for a final birdie.
Higa said she arrived Saturday with few expectations, let alone leading the major event. “I not only golf, but I enjoy the life here,” she said through an interpreter. “And I just enjoyed 18 holes today.”
The 20-year-old Henseleit was a German youth champion who has had six top-10 finishes in seven Ladies European Tour events this season.
She finished as the first alternate in London qualifying for this event and waited fretfully for several weeks before the call came saying she was in. Like Higa, Henseleit also played without a bogey and moved within a shot of Higa’s lead on the par-5 fifth — Henseleit began her round on the 10th hole — when she put her approach inside 3 feet of the cup for a birdie.
In men’s action, Ryan Moore opened with five birdies in seven holes and never missed a fairway after the first one, posting a 7-under 65 for his best start in his 14th appearance at the Memorial. He was one shot ahead of Jordan Spieth, who chipped in for birdie, for par and holed a 35-foot eagle putt.
Anirban Lahiri, Marc Leishman and Martin Kaymer were at 67.
Tiger Woods made a pair of late birdies to salvage a 70 in his first round since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.
Rory McIlroy had a 75 with two double bogeys, both from tee shots either lost (No. 15) or out-of-bounds (No. 2).