NAPLES, Fla. — Lydia Ko didn’t feel any differently on the first tee Thursday than she has at any other LPGA Tour events she has played, even the two that she won. It just took her a few hours before she started producing the kind of golf that brought so much attention to her professional debut.
The 16-year-old from New Zealand overcame a double bogey on her third hole with three birdies on the back nine at Tiburon Golf Club for a 1-under 71.
Ko was seven shots behind Sandra Gal of Germany, who opened with six straight birdies on her way to a 64.
Rebecca Lee-Bentham of Canada had six birdies on the back nine for a 65. Another shot behind was a group that included Lexi Thompson, coming off a win last week in Mexico, and Anna Nordqvist, who can make more money by winning the CME LPGA Titleholders than she has all year.
First place is worth $700,000, the biggest payoff in women’s golf.
Ko wasn’t thinking about money, even though this is the first event where she can take home a paycheck — and there is no cut in the 69-player field.
The starter introduced her by asking the gallery of about 100 people to “welcome to the LPGA Tour, Lydia Ko.” She calmly hit driver down the left side of the fairway on the par-5 opening hole.
“Just normal,” Ko said. “I didn’t feel too odd or special or slow or whatever today. That actually surprised me. I thought I would be much more nervous. And actually, one of the good things was I wasn’t thinking about any money or related stuff. I just tried to play my game, which was obviously very helpful.”
She missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the first hole, and then really ran into problems on the third. Ko pulled her tee shot through a waste area of coquina pebbles and just into the pine straw. She tried to play a draw toward the right side of the green, but was distracted when her club clipped a branch at the top of her swing, and her foot slipped. She didn’t get out of the waste area, and then took two more shots to reach the green and made a 4-footer for double bogey.