Ayaka Furue Gets Off to a Hot Start in LPGA Season Opener with a 65 to Lead by Two Shots

AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski
Ayaka Furue hits a fairway shot on the 18th hole during the first round of the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament in Orlando, Fla., Jan. 18, 2024.

Ayaka Furue of Japan did not see any signs of a fast start coming until she opened her 2024 LPGA season on Thursday with a red-hot performance.

Furue made seven birdies in a round 7-under 65, giving her a two-shot lead in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona.

Furue, 23, who captured the Ladies Scottish Open in 2022 for her first LPGA title, is making her second start at the LPGA’s season opener for winners each of the last two years. She broke from a pack late in her round with birdies on the closing two holes at Lake Nona, the Tom Fazio design that hosted the first Solheim Cup in 1990.

An eight-time winner on the Japan LPGA and that circuit’s 2021 Player of the Year, Furue was steady throughout to start her third LPGA season, finishing without a bogey on her card.

She finished two shots clear of Sweden’s Maja Stark, who tied for second at this tournament last year; and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, a past champion of the TOC.

Lopez started off on the back nine and birdied six of her first eight holes. Her December was not spent practicing, but instead on a three-week honeymoon that took her around the globe, including experiences on safari in South Africa and up close to the pyramids of Egypt.

She had few expectations other than to start slowly, but when she stuffed a 7-iron close at her fourth hole, the par-3 13th, and converted the short putt, she was 4 under through four holes. That, she said, shook out all the “spiderwebs.”

Californian Danielle Kang, another past champion of the event, opened with 68, as did Ally Ewing, a three-time winner on the LPGA who is seeking her first victory since 2022.

This event features 35 LPGA winners over 72 holes of stroke play alongside a celebrity field of 50 competitors competing for a separate purse using a Modified Stableford points system.

Furue’s 65 was the low round posted by a pro since the tournament shifted to Lake Nona in 2021. Furue cut a diminutive figure standing alongside Kyle Rudolph, a 6-foot-6 former NFL tight end, but she was mighty in her play. She got off to a nice start, making birdies at two of her first three holes, and kept pouring them throughout the day.

All of my play today, that was really fantastic for me, Furue said. “I could make a lot of birdies and get closer to the hole, and, yeah, I think that’s the point I could gain the result today.”

A group at 3-under 69 included defending champion, Brooke Henderson of Canada, who a year ago won the tournament by four shots, going wire-to-wire for her 13th LPGA victory. After jumping out to an opening win a year ago, Henderson did not win again in 2023, and is looking to get off to a fast start.

Kang, who won two years ago when the event moved to Lake Nona, got to 5 under through 15 holes but made bogeys at two of her last three. She was lifted by her celebrity pairing, playing alongside good friend Derek Lowe, the former MLB pitcher who won against the celebrities when Kang won, and NFL great Marcus Allen.

Kang said she has known Allen for much of her life and calls him uncle Marcus.

Coming out the gate, playing pretty solid, gives me good momentum heading into tomorrow, Kang said. “To play in a competitive golf round with him (Allen), it was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Lilia Vu, last year’s LPGA player of the year and a two-time major winner in 2023, opened the season with a round of 71, which left her in a tie for 18th.

Annika Sorenstam, a 72-time winner on the LPGA who retired to start a family in 2008, took the lead in the celebrity division, accumulating 40 points, two points better than MLB infielder Jeff McNeil. Sorenstam, a World Golf Hall of Famer, has the shortest commute of anyone this week. She is a longtime resident at Lake Nona.