Concord Golf Club amateur Belinda Ji and Gold Coast local Jordan O’Brien are just one stroke off the lead following the opening round of the Women’s NSW Open at Coolangatta-Tweed Heads Golf Club.
World No.81 Maja Stark’s round of four-under 68 in the morning wave stood tall for most of the afternoon before Scotland’s Michele Thomson took the outright lead at five-under with a birdie at the par-3 17th.
It would, however, prove to be short-lived.
A difficult lie in the greenside bunker at the par-5 18th and four subsequent putts saw Thomson drop two shots on her final hole to fall to a share of second alongside Ji, O’Brien and Alice Hewson, India’s Amandeep Drall matching Stark’s 68 to earn a share of the lead at the end of day one.
A 20-year-old amateur, Ji arrived at Coolangatta on the back of her best finish in a professional event and her lowest career round – a seven-under 65 in the final round to finish tied for eighth at the Australian Women’s Classic at Bonville Golf Resort.
With coach Khan Pullen serving as caddie, Ji picked up where she left off at Bonville, stellar iron play delivering kick-in birdies at the par-3 sixth and eighth holes in a round that featured five birdies and two bogeys for three-under 69.
“It’s always good to carry the momentum from a good round onwards,” Ji said of her impressive finish at Bonville.
“I know my game’s in a good place so even though it’s a totally different course, I’m still hitting really solid shots, putting myself in good positions and giving myself plenty of chances, which I did today.
“At a couple of the par 3s I hit really good iron shots in to three-foot, five-foot and then I holed those putts. My iron shots really allowed me to capitalise on those opportunities and into a few of the par 4s as well.”
O’Brien also finished strongly at Bonville with a round of 66 that earned her a share of 11th yet was slow out of the blocks on Thursday.
A member of the pro shop staff at RACV Royal Pines Resort 30 minutes on the northern side of the border, O’Brien was two-over through seven holes before catching fire at the turn.
Starting with an up-and-down from 65 metres at the par-5 18th, O’Brien peeled off four birdies in the space of five holes, adding another at the par-3 eighth to post 69 in just her second Ladies European Tour event.
“I actually flubbed my 3-wood before the bunker (on 18) and had a 65-metre shot and hit it pretty close and sunk that. Then went birdie-birdie and continued on,” O’Brien said of her mid-round surge up the leaderboard.
“This is obviously the first time playing LET events so just enjoy every moment, meeting the new girls and playing with different people. It’s just good fun.”
Runner-up to Meghan MacLaren at Bonville, Stark emphasised her claim to the newly renamed Jan Stephenson Trophy with a round that included six birdies on the Coolangatta West Course’s firm and slick greens, putting surfaces that proved to be to the Swede’s liking.
“I felt the pins were pretty easy because they weren’t close to the edges so you could go for almost everything,” said Stark. “I thought that was better than playing defensively.
“The greens are nice, I like that they’re firm and pretty quick too.
“I was a bit wide off the tee, so I was in the woods quite a lot, but I didn’t get bogeys when I was there. It was fine and my putting was pretty good, and I hit some good irons.
“It was pretty steady other than the driver being everywhere.”
Putting proved to be crucial also for Drall in her round of 68.
Tied for second after the opening round at Bonville last week, Drall revelled in the tree-lined course and the true roll of the Cooly-Tweed greens.
“I sank two long putts which were more than 30 feet,” Drall said.
“The rest were within 12 feet so in that way my ball striking was pretty consistent. I think the most important part was off the tee with my driver, I was pretty consistent and I kept the ball in play in the fairways.
“It probably does suit me because I like playing tighter tree-lined courses. It is pretty flat, so you have to keep hitting it straight. I think I can do that and manage that and I’m looking forward to the next three days.”
The NSW Amateur champion in January, 15-year-old Gold Coaster Sarah Hammett continued her stellar play with a round of two-under 70 to be just two back with Cassie Porter (72) and Kelsey Bennett (72) the next best of the Aussies in a tie for 17th.
For those without status on the Ladies European Tour the next three days are potentially life-changing with the winner to be offered membership of the LET through until the end of the 2024 season.