(REUTERS) - Unheralded Swedish golfer Pernilla Lindberg birdied her final two holes for a seven-under 65 to take a one-stroke lead over Ayako Uehara and Beatriz Recari after the first round of the ANA Inspiration in California on Thursday (March 29).
Perfect scoring conditions prevailed as the women's Major season started with low scores with more than half the field shooting par or better at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage.
American Lexi Thompson, who lost a play-off last year after incurring a four-stroke penalty for replacing her ball in the wrong spot for a tap-in putt in the third round, made a good start in her quest for redemption with a 68.
But South Korean Ryu So Yeon, who beat Thompson last year, dug herself into a deep hole in her title defence with a three-over 75 that included not a single birdie.
Lindberg, out in the last group of the day off the 10th tee, stole the limelight, gathering seven birdies, including a chip-in at her 15th hole, the par-four sixth.
She finished in style moments before the sun dipped below the nearby San Jacinto mountains, coaxing in an eight-foot birdie at her last.
Her eight-foot putt caught the right edge of the hole before dropping in, as the 31-year-old pumped her right fist in delight.
"I started off solid and ended even better," said Lindberg, who has never won in nine seasons on the LPGA Tour. "The whole day it was pretty steady. I was never in too much trouble.
"Sure, I was in the rough a few times and had to make a couple of good up-and-downs around the greens, but I never put myself under too much stress."
Uehara, one shot back, 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 said, 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.
Recari also shot 66, thanks to six birdies in the first 12 holes.
"I've always felt if I was going to win a major it was going to be on this course. It really suits my game," said the Spaniard, who has three LPGA victories, the most recent in 2013.
Jessica Korda started with four straight birdies and finished on 67.
The American, daughter of former tennis world No. 2 Petr, 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."
She also birdied the last after bogeying the previous two holes, which she put down to a "couple of weird shots".
While Thompson enjoyed a positive start, her playing partner and compatriot Michelle Wie, on the other hand, blamed dizzy spells for her 75 that left her with a steep hill to climb.
"I had the mad spins out there," she said. "I just got really dizzy. I don't know why or how. But it was interesting.
"I just sometimes get it from time to time."
Wie, winner of the LPGA Singapore event early this month, joked that her blurred vision had given her a choice of five balls to hit from the rough at one hole on the front nine.
"Back nine I felt a lot better. I'm hoping that get a good night's sleep tonight and make a lot of birdies," she said, still hopeful of playing her way back into the tournament.