Yuka Saso's 68 shines as stars falter at U.S. Women's Open

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Former champion Yuka Saso leaned on her putter to survive a brutally tough start to the U.S. Women's Open on Thursday, an opening round that featured Nelly Korda making a 10 on her third hole and only four players barely beating par.

Saso had three big par putts to start the back nine at Lancaster Country Club, rolled in two medium-length birdie putts toward the end of her round and finished with three putts from the collar of the 18th green for bogey and a 2-under 68.

It felt even lower than that considering all the carnage around her. The leading 10 players from the women's world ranking had an average score of 75.5 -- including Korda's 80 -- and only two-time major champion Minjee Lee was not over par.

"It's a U.S. Open. It's a major. It's the biggest major championship, and I think it's one of the most difficult weeks that we'll play," Saso said. "I don't tell myself to be confident or anything like that."

Saso, who seized on a Lexi Thompson meltdown in 2021 to win the Women's Open at Olympic Club, led by one shot over Andrea Lee, Wichanee Meechai of Thailand and recently crowned NCAA champion Adela Cernousek of France.

Cernousek, a junior at Texas A&M, had company among amateurs. Three of them were in the group at even-par 70 - U.S. Women's Amateur champion Megan Schofill, Catherine Park and 15-year-old Asterisk Talley, who is coming off her first USGA title at the U.S. Women's Amateur Four-ball Championship.

Lee, who picked up her second major in the Women's Open at Pine Needles two years ago, holed out from 15 feet just off the green at the par-3 17th to get back to even par.

"Just come back and try and beat the course again," she said.

The rest of the LPGA Tour's biggest stars took a beating, none as bad or as shocking as Korda. The No. 1 player in women's golf, Korda arrived at Lancaster having won six of her last seven tournaments. Three holes into her opening round, she was sent reeling.

Korda hit from a back bunker into a stream on the par-3 12th hole, and then pitched into the stream from the other side twice on her way to a 10. She added four bogeys over the next 15 holes and signed for an 80, matching her highest round as a professional.

"Not a lot of positive thoughts, honestly," Korda said. "I just didn't play well today. I didn't hit it good. I found myself in the rough a lot. Making a 10 on a par 3 will definitely not do you any good at a U.S. Open.

"Yeah," she concluded, "just a bad day at the office."

It was a bad day for so many others. Rose Zhang, who ended Korda's five-tournament winning streak three weeks ago in New Jersey, looked to be shell-shocked when she walked off the 18th green with yet another three-putt bogey and a 79.

Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson each shot 80. The average score for the field was 75.2.

The wind was swirling at some of the higher points on the course, and the greens were firm and bouncy, just how the USGA likes it. The 156-player field produced just over 900 scores of bogey or worse - in Korda's case, a septuple bogey.

Thompson, likely playing in her final U.S. Women's Open after announcing she will no longer play a full schedule after this year, started her back nine by going from bunker to bunker to bunker to thick rough and taking triple bogey. She shot 78.

Saso picked up 5.7 shots on the field with her putter, and it carried her to the lead.

"I made really good putts. I think I was more lucky than playing good," Saso said.

She has a shot at a peculiar slice of victory this week if she were to win and become the only Women's Open champion to play under two flags.

Saso won as a Filipino at the Olympic Club, and the following year -- before turning 21 -- declared her citizenship to be Japan (her father is Japanese). A big week could also thrust her into position to get back to the Olympics under a different flag.

That feels like a long way off, especially after such a hard day of work.

"There's so much golf left," Saso said. "The golf course is very difficult and the conditions are very tough, especially with the wind with it swirling and when it's blowing 15 mph with the firm greens and fast greens."

It didn't seem to hurt the amateur, particularly Cernousek. She dropped only two shots, one of them on a three-putt from 40 feet on the 14th hole, and held her nerve to break par. She was amazed seeing her name on every scoreboard.

"I was like, 'Wow!' I was watching every leaderboard on the course," she said.

Talley is one of two 15-year-olds in the field at Lancaster and played well above her years with smart decisions when she got out of position. Her one gaffe came on the par-5 seventh hole when she only advanced her second shot about 50 yards out of the thick rough, laid up and then put it in the water fronting the green. She made a triple bogey.

But Talley -- her mother says Asterisk is Greek for "Little Star" -- followed with a nine-hole stretch of three birdies and six pars, not dropping another shot until the 17th,

"I feel like I could have done a lot better today, but I'm not mad at all about my round," Talley said. "I was hearing everybody even par is a good round today. I wish I could have been a couple under par."