Former champions Ai Suzuki and Momoko Ueda shot bogey-free 7-under 65s on Thursday, November 3 to share the lead as the host nation dominated the first round of the LPGA Tour's Japan Classic.
Suzuki had four birdies on the front nine at the par-72 Seta Golf Course in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, and added three more after the turn for a one-stroke lead over 2021 champion Ayaka Furue and Sakura Koiwai, who both fired a 66 and are tied for third.
"I felt like I could have gone to 10-under," said Suzuki, who parted ways with her coach in October. "I just decided to go it alone and it's been working well."
A 28-year-old native of Tokushima Prefecture, Suzuki won this tournament in 2019, the last time it was included in the LPGA Tour's schedule.
“My shots were not consistent in the first four holes, then I made a little adjustment in my swing," Suzuki said.
Ueda Finishes Strong
Ueda, who won this tournament in 2007 and 2011, was equally impressive with five straight birdies from the par-4 No. 10 after three birdies and a lone bogey on the front nine.
"It is just a good first round. I do not think about it very much at this moment. I just want to focus on each day from tomorrow as well," said Ueda, who departed from the LPGA Tour after the 2013 season.
Ueda added, "I changed shaft for driver and also putter. I normally do not change my putter pretty often but it works very well this week.”
The tournament wasn't part of the LPGA's schedule in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions but was contested on the JLPGA Tour.
Defending champion Furue got off to a sizzling start with six birdies before the turn but bogeyed the par-4 No. 11. She finished strong with a birdie on the final hole, the par-5 18th, to move into a tie for third with Koiwai.
"I played very aggressively until the 10th hole. But I missed the green on the 11th hole and made a bogey," Furue said. "Since then I could not play aggressively today."
Miyuu Yamashita shot a 67 and was in sole possession of fifth place, one stroke ahead of Kana Nagai, Kotone Hori and Ayaka Watanabe, who all fired 68 and were tied for sixth with China's Yuting Shi.
Nasa Hataoka, the 2018 winner, got off to a rough start with three straight bogeys and never recovered, finishing with a 2-over 74.
Tournament's Golden Anniversary
The Japan Classic is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and features a field of 42 players from the LPGA Tour and 36 from the LPGA of Japan Tour (commonly known as the JLPGA Tour), which co-sanctions the event.
Suzuki is one of five former champions competing in this tournament, including Jiyai Shin (2020), Hataoka (2018), Ueda (2007, 2011) and Furue (2021).
Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand, who last week became the second-youngest player, male or female, to reach world No. 1, shot a 1-under 71 that featured two birdies and a bogey.
The 19-year-old Thitikul is only the second player under 20 to reach No. 1. New Zealand's Lydia Ko was just 17 when she first topped the rankings in 2015.
"I hadn't thought that I would be No. 1 in the world that fast. And I didn't think I would achieve this in my first year on the LPGA as well," Thitikul said before the start of the tournament. "Overall, I'm feeling great. Feeling grateful that this has happened this year."
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles here.