By Jeff Babineau

BOCA RATON, Fla. – How is this for blazing out of the gates at the 2022 Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio: New Zealander Lydia Ko went out and birdied half of the holes that she played. That’s a pretty good day. 

The result was a 9-under 63 that was one shot off the tournament scoring record (Madeline Sagstrom, 2020). Ko, 24, who won the first of her 16 LPGA titles at age 15, gave herself a great look at equaling the record, but failed to convert a 5-foot birdie putt after an incredible approach at the 398-yard, par-4 ninth hole, her last. It was about the only glitch in Ko’s day. She leads Danielle Kang by two shots and Aditi Ashok by three after the first day of play in the LPGA’s first full-field event of 2022. 

Ko birdied three consecutive holes beginning at Boca Rio’s par-3 13th, and went on another three-birdie run after making the turn. She never was in much danger of making a bogey.

“When I had an opportunity for birdie, for the most part I was able to hole it, which is nice,” said Ko, whose 2021 Lotte Championship victory was her first since 2018. “I didn’t have a great time on the putting green last week, so to kind of see putts going in, I think it was definitely like a good imagery, and I tried to feed off that for the rest of the round.”

Kang’s new season is off to a torrid start. It began with a hole-in-one near home in Las Vegas at TPC Summerlin in a recreational round on New Year’s Day. Sunday, she won on the LPGA for the first time since the summer of 2020, prevailing at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando. She collected her sixth LPGA victory and a winner’s check for $225,000. 

In Thursday’s opening round, Kang still had the pedal down. Even though she said she didn’t drive the ball great at times, her sound iron play led the way to eight birdies and a first-round 65. It was her fifth consecutive round in the 60s to open the season. 

In between Sunday and Thursday, Kang spent some time in South Florida, first playing alongside Wayne Gretzky at Michael Jordan’s ultra-private The Grove XXIII on Tuesday morning, and then joining Gretzky and his wife, Janet – whom Kang knows from Southern California – for Wayne’s birthday dinner on Wednesday. They enjoyed hibachi. Kang, who resides in Las Vegas, said Janet’s home-cooking and hospitality made her feel as if she were home for a night, and had her in a relaxed mood to open strong on Thursday.

Kang was hanging out at a table in The Grove XXIII clubhouse (“One of the coolest places ever,” she said) when she heard a booming voice behind her say, “Hey DK. Nice win!!” It was Jordan. Gretzky and Jordan? Two GOATs in the same week? That has to be some sort of record. 

“I’m just staring at him,” Kang said, smiling. “This is Michael Jordan. So cool.”

Kang finished third when the Gainbridge LPGA was played at Boca Rio two years ago. She said she details of how she played are hazy outside of remembering the greens being fast. To start out the new year, she has been very focused on the here and now, taking things a shot at a time and keeping everything in the present. At Lake Nona last week, she said she wasn’t too focused on results after a winless 2021 season, and then shot 69-68 to sprint away on the weekend. The last time that Kang won previously to Sunday, she reeled off back-to-back victories. 

The field at Boca Rio includes seven of the top 10 players and 17 of the top 25 from the Rolex Rankings. World No. 1 Nelly Korda, who played in an afternoon power group along with Ko and Lexi Thompson, opened with a round of 4-under 68. (Korda technically is the tournament’s defending champion, though she won her 2021 Gainbridge title at Lake Nona.)

Yuka Saso, the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open champion, opened with 67, as did Nasa Hataoka, who was runner-up two years ago when the event was played at Boca Rio. More than half the field (62 of 120 players) broke par on opening day. Round 2 will begin off two tees on Friday at 7:10 a.m.

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