NAPLES (Florida) • American Austin Ernst, seeking only her second LPGA title, fired a six-under 66 on Thursday to grab a one-stroke lead after the opening round of golf's season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida.
And, while the world No. 53 was charging to the lead, New Zealand teen star Lydia Ko carded a 69 to help tighten her grip on the world No. 1 ranking ahead of South Korean Park In Bee, who opened with a 71 to share 22nd place.
Park must finish 12th or better to have a chance of swiping the year-end top spot from Ko, the defending champion who took the season points bonus and the title last year for a record US$1.5 million (S$2.1 million) payday.
Ernst has barely cracked the million-dollar mark in her three LPGA seasons, with her lone crown coming at last year's Portland Classic, but she found form with her streaky putter on Thursday to put herself atop the leader board.
"There were still two or three putts I feel I should have made, but to be able to shoot 66 is a step in the right direction," she said. "It has been a little streaky. I have been up and down with the putter. I had eight birdies today. When I get around like that with the putter, that's when I have good weeks."
The 23-year-old has four top-10 efforts this season, including a share of second at the Yokohama Tire Classic in August, where she adopted a claw putting style.
A birdie-birdie finish put her in the lead by a stroke over South Korean Lee Mi Hyang, with Korean Kim Sei Young and Americans Jennifer Song, Cristie Kerr, Jaye Marie Green, Brittany Lincicome and Gerina Piller sharing third on 68.
Ko, the 18-year-old Kiwi wonder who has five wins this season and captured her first Major title at the Evian Championship in France, took a bogey at the fifth.
But she birdied the next hole and added three more on the back nine to join a pack on 69, with American Alison Lee and South Koreans Kim In Kyung and Jang Ha Na.
A victory for Park would give her the top ranking no matter where Ko finishes.
CME GROUP TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP
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