Lee and American Jennifer Kupcho posted six-under-par 66s in the morning wave at The Chevron Championships in Mission Hills.
Ranked fourth in the world rankings after a stellar start to 2022, Lee was one of the favorites for the pure ball striker and duly delivered with six birdies in a bogey-free round.
The 25-year-old birdieed all four par 5s in sunny and calm conditions to leap onto the field, with compatriot Gabby Raffles forming part of a six-way tie in fourth with defending champion Patty Tvatnakit in second. Five-under.
“It was perfect,” Lee said. “Not like a gust of wind when we played. Maybe just a little bit, but the conditions are great. It’s really good to put greens. I don’t think you can get better than that.”
Lee won the Evian Championship last summer for her first major title and sixth LPGA Tour victory.
Victorian Gabby Raffles is two ahead of Minji Lee after the first round. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
“I know I have one under my belt, but I want a little more,” she said.
“I think I have a little more confidence in myself and my game so I can be a little more comfortable hitting my chosen shots.”
Kupcho birdied 11 to 14 and reached eight under, then bogeyed the next two holes. He birdied four of the first five holes and finished with nine birdies and three bogeys.
“I really like the layout of this golf course, it’s beautiful shape every year,” Kupcho said.
“It’s always a lot of fun to be here, so I love the course and the atmosphere by taking advantage of it.”
The 24-year-old from Winless, Colorado won the 2018 NCAA individual title for Wake Forest on the LPGA Tour and the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur the following year.
Correct: Jennifer Kupcho shared the lead with Australian Lee, the American briefly eight-under on Thursday. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images.
She arrived in Mission Hills after missing the cut in Aviara, Carlsbad, last week.
“To be honest, I didn’t like that course last week,” Kupcho said. “It’s not set up for my eye, so I didn’t really think much about it.
“I only used the two days I had over the weekend to come here and practice.”
Anna Nordquist, Caroline Mason and Lydia Ko are part of the group with ruffles after 68, and 2014 winner Lexi Thompson is another stroke back in the group.
Thompson expressed surprise at the conditions on the course he played for the first time as a 14-year-old amateur.
“I’ve never looked so good at it,” Thompson said. “It always surprises me every year. It’s always better, but the greens are wonderful.
“I’m one to putt and usually target things along the way, and there’s no imperfection on the greens to target. That’s a good problem.”
Ruffles replenished six birdies by back-to-back bogeys on 4 and 5, while Hannah Greene also opened her 2022 flagship campaign solidly with a two-under 70.
Sarah Kemp (+1) and Su Oh (+2) have to work to make the weekend, the pair sitting on either side of the projected cut in an over.
— Additional reporting, Jimmy Emanuel
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