SOUTHPORT, England — Ayako Uehara of Japan felt confident with the putter and played in the best weather Royal Birkdale has to offer. It was the right combination to take the lead on Thursday in the Women's British Open. And the best she could manage was a 4-under 68.
Pot bunkers can present problems on any links course. Throw in some thick grass and par becomes a problem.
Michelle Wie could attest to that. The U.S. Women's Open champion spent too much time chipping out of sand and rough on her way to a 75. Cristie Kerr didn't make a birdie, shot 81, and withdrew with a sore back. Only nine players broke par, all but two of them in the relative calm of a sunny morning along the Irish Sea.
"It's only going to get harder," defending champion Stacy Lewis said after a 71. "Anything under par on this golf course is a good score."
Uehara got her lone mistake out of the way early and made another bogey after the opening hole. She made three birdies in a four-hole stretch, added two birdies on the back nine and built a one-shot lead over Mo Martin.
"Ayako obviously put up a really good number," said Lewis, who played in her group. "She seems like she wasn't in trouble at all. She was just greens, greens, center of the green. You can kind of learn a little bit from that and maybe not go at so many pins."
Morgan Pressel scrambled her way to a 70, joined by Sarah Kemp and Mina Harigae. The only players who broke par in the afternoon were former U.S. Women's Open champion So Yeon Ryu and Amy Yang, who played in the final group at the U.S. Women's Open last month. Both shot 71.
"I don't think they can make it any easier," Pressel said.
That doesn't bode well for Wie, who was introduced on the first tee as the U.S Women's Open champion and then posted her highest score of the year. Wie had to birdie the par-5 18th hole — the only time she hit driver — to finish 3 over.
"Thought I made a good game plan," Wie said. "Just didn't hit good shots today."
Paula Creamer was 5-over par after five holes and rallied for a 75. The best comeback belonged to Jessica Korda, who went out in 39 and then made four birdies on the back nine to return to even par. Karrie Webb, Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, and Kraft Nabisco champion Lexi Thompson also were at even par.
The way it looked Thursday, anyone around par might be in good shape when it ends on Sunday.
Wie now has to climb back on a course that makes it feel as though she has to scale a mountain. She tried to rely on her powerful stinger off the tee, using mostly hybrids, to stay short of the bunkers and out of the rough. But she hit only seven fairways, leading to three of her bogeys.
"I definitely felt like my tempo was a little bit off," Wie said. "But it's a long way until Sunday, and I battled out there. It's not the score I was looking forward to on Thursday, but it could have been a lot worse."
3 tied at John Deere
SILVIS, Ill. — Jordan Spieth felt great Thursday on the first tee of the John Deere Classic. He heard not only his name, but, for the first time, the phrase "defending champion."
A par followed. Then another, and another after that. And then a bogey.
The playoff winner from 2013 was suddenly reeling.
"It was a struggle," Spieth said of the round, an even-par 71 he salvaged with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes.
"I need to go find something on the range because I just wasn't comfortable over the ball today."
Spieth was eight strokes behind Zach Johnson, Rory Sabbatini, and Brian Harman, whose 8-under-par 63s shared the lead after the opening round.
Then again, Spieth was six strokes behind the leaders entering last year's final round and rallied to win, beating Johnson and David Hearn in a sudden-death playoff.
"It's going to take some incredible golf," said Spieth, sixth on the PGA Tour money list. "But I'm putting well, so when I find my swing, I can maybe take it deep."
That's where the leaders were.
Johnson and Sabbatini played bogey-free golf, while Harman had nine birdies and one bogey on the par-71 TPC Deere Run — even though his regular caddie had to drop out.
They led 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton, Australian Steven Bowditch, and William McGirt, the best afternoon finisher, by a stroke. Brendon de Jonge, Kevin Tway, David Toms, and Robert Streb are two back at 6-under 65.
Harman, who bettered his best round of the year by two strokes, was 2 under through six holes when his caddie, Scott Tway, took ill. Jay Hatch of Davenport, Iowa, a high school basketball coach, volunteered from the gallery and carried Harman's bag the last 12 holes, which Harman played in 6 under.
Harman didn't miss a beat when his caddie took ill.
"I called a medic over and Scottie said he was going to have to sit out at least a couple holes," Harman said. "Jay was standing there and said, 'I'll do it. I'll keep up.' "
Checking his own yardages, Harman birdied seven of his last 12 holes, and nine overall.
Johnson, who won the Deere in 2012, birdied four of his first five holes and was 6 under on his opening nine. He won the Tournament of Champions in January, but described his recent golf as "going through the motions too much." He hasn't finished in the top 10 since a tie for sixth in the Texas Open in March.
"I was a little spent," Johnson explained. "I played too much, and I was anxious for results. I got ahead of myself."
His start on familiar territory was a return to form, an early birdie binge including a 22-footer on the par-3 12th and a 32-footer on the par-4 14th. At 8-under through 11 holes, the vision of a 59 crept into his thoughts.
"Very briefly," Johnson said. "If you're going to do it, you still have to hit it solid. Maybe I mis-clubbed on 6, but I could have birdied 8. I hit only one really bad shot, and that was the second shot at 9."
Johnson parred his last seven holes.
"I'd rather have 59 wins than shoot 59," Johnson said.
Sabbatini scored his best round of the year, closing with birdies on three of the last four holes.