RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - World number one Lydia Ko moved into contention for the ANA Inspiration in record-equalling style on Thursday as South Korea's Choi Na-yeon seized a share of the early lead in the opening round.
New Zealander Ko, watched by the biggest galleries of the day, battled strong winds on her front nine before grinding out a one-under-par 71 at a sun-baked Mission Hills Country Club to equal an LPGA Tour record for sub-par scores.
The richly talented 17 year old, who has to win a major but has already claimed six LPGA titles, matched Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam's run of 29 consecutive rounds under par on the circuit, achieved by the Swede in 2004.
That left Ko a stroke off the early pace set by 2012 U.S. Women's Open champion Choi, England's Charley Hull and American Austin Ernst in the opening women's major of the season.
"Overall I'm happy with where I am for this tournament," said Ko, who became the youngest golfer to hold top spot in the world rankings by tying for second place at the LPGA's season-opening event in January.
"It's just pretty cool to tie Annika's record."
Hull, who won last year's Lalla Meryem Cup in a playoff to claim her first title on the Ladies European Tour, was delighted with her 70 after arriving in the California desert late on Monday night.
"I'm starting to get the feel of the golf course now," the 19 year old from Kettering said after mixing four birdies with two bogeys. "I like everything about this course. I like the way it's laid out.
"To start with it was tricky because of that wind. I felt like putting downwind was very tricky. That was the biggest challenge today, the wind."
Ernst joined Choi and Hull in a tie for the early lead after a round that included five birdies and three bogeys, and pointed to the massive confidence boost she gained from winning her first LPGA title at last year's Portland Classic.
"Any time you can win, especially on this level, that always gives you more confidence just knowing you can compete," said the 23 year old from South Carolina.
"I won that week and felt like I didn't make every putt or I didn't have to play perfect golf."
World number two Park In-bee of South Korea and third-ranked American Stacy Lewis were among the late starters on Thursday.
Editing by Larry Fine