March 29 (Reuters) - Ayako Uehara of Japan took advantage of perfect morning conditions to set the early pace with a six-under-par 66 in the first round at the ANA Inspiration in California on Thursday.
Hardly a breath of wind greeted the early starters for the first women’s major of the year, and Uehara was among those to take advantage at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage.
She headed American Jessica Korda, South Korean Jang Ha-na and New York-born Swiss amateur Albane Valenzuela with half the field back in the clubhouse.
But South Korean Ryu So-yeon dug herself into a deep hole in her quest to defend her title with a three-over 75 that included not a single birdie.
Uehara made what could have been a demoralising bogey at her opening hole, but responded well with birdies at the next two.
“I had a three-putt, and I kind of played tight,” she told reporters, adding that she had not started to relax until making three successive birdies around the turn.
Uehara, ranked 121st in the world, said her experience of contending at last year’s Evian major, where she tied for 10th after a late double-bogey, had helped her understand how to control her adrenaline.
She said she was feeling nervous but also confident.
“I think that’s a good combination,” said the 34-year-old from Okinawa.
Korda, hot on Uehara’s heels, made a sizzling start with four straight birdies.
She also birdied the last after bogeying the previous two holes, which she put down to a “couple of weird shots”.
Korda is playing with verve and serenity this year after surgery to correct a debilitating jaw problem. She has 27 screws holding her face in place.
“I didn’t realise how much it affected me until I got the surgery done,” said Korda, who won the Honda LPGA Thailand in February.
“I’m just a happy person now. I wake up, no headaches. I get to wake up pain free every day and that’s amazing to me.”
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond