Minjee Lee hangs tough at brutal US Open examination

Darren Walton |

Minjee Lee is the leading Australian after a gruelling first day at the Women’s US Open.
Minjee Lee is the leading Australian after a gruelling first day at the Women’s US Open.

Former champion Minjee Lee will likely sleep easier – and heavier – after showcasing her class once more to escape the carnage on a dramatic opening day at the $18 million Women’s US Open in Pennsylvania.

World No.1 Nelly Korda was among the big names to endure a first-round horror show as Lee led a faltering Australian challenge with a steely even-par 70 at the beautiful but beastly Lancaster Country Club outside Philadelphia.

Lee shook off two sloppy three-putts and a painful long-range lip-out on the back nine to be tied for fifth, just two shots off the pace in pursuit of a third major championship in three years – and a $US2 million ($A3 million) pay day at the richest event in women’s golf history.

It was no coincidence fellow former winner Yuka Saso topped the leaderboard after a sublime display with the blade in a two-under 68 as a raft of superstars slipped out of contention on the opening day.

“I made really good putts. I was more lucky than playing good,” Saso said.

Korda’s hopes of back-to-back majors – and a seventh win of the year – ended on her third hole, the brutal par-3 12th, when the American hit three balls into a stream en route to a ghastly septuple-bogey 10.

Korda wound up with an 80, as did New Zealand’s former world No.1 Lydia Ko and Canada’s multiple major winner Brooke Henderson as the combined scoring total for the field exceeded 700 over par. 

“I’m human. I’m going to have bad days,” Korda said.

The day’s average score was more than five over, the highest in a decade at a US Open, with American prodigy Rose Zhang (79) and retiring great Lexi Thompson (78) among others to fall victim to the treacherous course set-up.

Lee, though, held her nerve to stay right in the mix, just two back of Saso and one behind the only other three players to finish in red numbers with rounds of 69 – Thailand’s Wichanee Meechai, French amateur Adela Cernousek and American Andrea Lee.

The 2022 champion is in a 10-way tie for fifth with, among others, 2020 US PGA champ Sei Young Kim of South Korea and American amateurs Megan Schofill, Asterisk Talley and Catherine Park after offsetting five bogeys with five birdies at the course branded ‘The Beast’.

“I remember it from nine years ago. It was my rookie year and it was like, ‘Oh, my God’,” Lee said.

“Now that I come back, it is hilly, but it’s the same for everyone. It is a monster of a walk. 

“It’ll be good recovery at nights and (then) just come back and try and beat the course again.

“But I felt pretty good out there. If you missed the fairway a little bit you were in quite a bit of trouble. It’s quite detrimental.”

Gabriela Ruffels and Sarah Kemp are the next best Australians. 

Ruffels rallied from two early double bogeys, while Kemp hit four bogeys in her outward nine, and seven overall, as both carded a 75 – one better than Lee’s in-form Perth stablemate Hannah Green.

Gabriela Ruffels.
Gabriela Ruffels rallied from two early double bogeys to card a 75 on day one in Pennsylvania. (AP PHOTO)

Green, up to world No.5 following a two-win start to the year, let it slip with a back-nine 41 after making birdie at the ninth to drag herself back to even par.

The 2019 PGA Championship winner’s troubles started with a short missed putt on 11 before she found the water on the 12th and took double.

Green racked up three more bogeys coming home and will need to fight on Friday to make the halfway cut.

Major championship debutant Keeley Marx also posted a 76, with Steph Kyriacou propping up the Australian contingent with a 77.