Ha-Neul Kim charges to lead

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The first day of the U.S. Women's Open is often a collision of stories emanating from all over the globe. There are players on the leaderboard you fully expect to be there and others you might not have even heard of.

This, the 68th version of the biggest prize in women's golf, had the world's No. 1 player, Inbee Park, right at the top nearly all day. She finished her morning round Thursday at 5-under 67 and left it for anyone in the afternoon to try to catch or pass her.

Only one did: South Korean countrywoman Ha-Neul Kim, a 24-year-old who is making her Women's Open debut. A former rookie of the year on the Korean women's tour, she shot a bogey-free 6-under 66.

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Chasing her third major in a row, Inbee Park posted an early 67 that topped the leaderboard most of the day.

She addressed the media through a translator, but her smile and the bounce in her step even after 18 holes were part of the universal language of "totally elated."

"I was very nervous coming in, and I thought in the practice round that the course was very difficult," she said. "I'm enjoying myself. I'm just happy to be here and playing in this big event. I'm not really thinking about winning or the results."

Park, of course, has a completely different mindset, as she's off to a great start in trying to win her second Women's Open. She is alone in second place. Tied in third at 68 are American Lizette Salas, South Korea's I.K. Kim, and the Swedish duo of Caroline Hedwall and Anna Nordqvist.

Salas, a 23-year-old Southern Cal graduate, has played well at the Women's Open before. Last year, she was in the lead after the first round, and in 2011, she was in second on the first day. But both years, she had her worst round of the tournament on the final day. The same thing happened this year at the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

But Salas said she thinks she's ready to be a stronger closer.

"I feel like I'm much more prepared with my game and mentally," she said. "If it comes to the weekend and I'm in contention, I really believe I can manage my patience and my nerves a lot more than last year and the year before."

One of the most interesting and unlikely people near the lead after Round 1 was Chile's Paz Echeverria, who shot 3-under 69 and is tied for seventh. This is her first Women's Open and just her second LPGA major championship. Here's the kicker: She's 28 years old. Call her a late bloomer.

In a tournament that typically has a few mid-teens -- or younger -- making their Women's Open debuts, Echeverria's path is definitely the one less taken. She went to college in Chile, studying business, and didn't decide she wanted to be a pro golfer until she was 24.

"Like, probably I see life in a different way," Echeverria said. "I have my degree. So if [playing golf] doesn't work, I have a Plan B."

And that is?

"Working in four walls," she said, grinning. "But I don't want to do that now. I want to enjoy the moment."

Thursday was a day to savor at Sebonack Golf Club, where the on-the-bay scenery beats the heck out of four walls, for sure. The course wasn't as tough as most expected it to be, but perhaps the United States Golf Association is just setting up the players for some unpleasantness that is coming.

"I'm not sure about [Friday]," Park said. "But I think on the weekend, they'll definitely go difficult."

Park can expect she'll be busy late on the weekend. She is attempting to become just the fourth woman to win three majors in a season.

"I think I'm in the best position I could be in," Park said of her six-birdie, one-bogey round. "I didn't leave many out there."

As for I.K. Kim, she has three LPGA victories but unfortunately is best remembered for the foot-long "gimme" putt she missed that would have won the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship. She then lost that major in a playoff.

She went on a run Thursday during which she birdied three holes in a row and six of seven. She ended with a bit of a dud, though, with a bogey on the par-5 18th.

"My caddie, I think he had some headaches today," she said in regard to how the course was set up shorter than the players had anticipated. "But he gave me numbers where to hit it, and that's all I did.

"Everybody thinks this is one of the best golf courses that we play. I mean, every year, we're spoiled pretty bad, but this golf course is very interesting."

So was this leaderboard after one day. The last European to win the Women's Open was Annika Sorenstam in 2006. Two of her young countrywomen, Nordqvist and Hedwall, are in the mix here.

"Caroline is a friend of mine, and we've been growing up playing together," said Nordqvist, who has won a major previously, the 2009 LPGA Championship. "This is certainly one of the tournaments you want to play good in, and I couldn't ask for a better start today.

"I feel like it takes a couple of years to get used to the way the USGA sets up the courses and the way you're going to have to manage yourself."

For first-timer Ha-Neul Kim, though, it was a magical opening day.

"When Inbee shot a 67, I said to myself, 'Wow, how did she shoot that score?'" Kim said. "And then I went out and beat her."

For a day, anyway, she was the top South Korean in women's golf.

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