Jutanugarn co-leads Japan Classic, closing in on POY

Ariya Jutanugarn got off to a fast start in her bid to win her sixth LPGA title this year and clinch the Rolex Player of the Year title.

With a 6-under-par 66 Friday, Jutanugarn is tied for the lead with South Korea’s Soo-Yun Kang through the first round of the 54-hole Toto Japan Classic in Ibaraki, Japan.

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko opened with a 74 and former No. 1 Stacy Lewis with a 67.

Jutanugarn can clinch the Rolex Player of the Year Award with a victory this week. She’s 13 points ahead of Ko in the POY standings with each player scheduled for just one more start this year, the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. A victory is worth 30 points this week with second worth 12 points, with points awarded down to a single point for 10th place.

Jutanugarn closed with back-to-back birdies in a bogey-free round. She hit just 11 greens in regulation but cleaned up every miss, getting up and down every time. She chipped in for birdie from 35 feet at the 10th hole.

“I played good,” Jutanugarn said. “I missed a few tee shots, but I made some putts, and those chips today were good.”

Ko is tied for 57th in the 78-player field.

“I didn’t strike the ball very well today with the driver, the irons or the hybrids,” Ko said. “Nothing was really clicking. When it’s like that, it’s really hard to give yourself a lot of birdie opportunities. I struck the ball a little better on the back nine but still it wasn’t great.

“It was a little bit of a surprise, because I hit the ball pretty well the last few days in the practice rounds and the pro-am. Hopefully, it’s just a one day thing and tomorrow it will be sorted.”

Kang, 40, won the LPGA’s Safeway Classic in 2005 but is a regular on the Japan LPGA Tour now. She said she wasn’t thinking about a 2017 LPGA exemption should she win this week.

“I like Japan,” Kang said.

Lewis is making just her second start since taking five weeks off after the Evian Championship. She is looking for her 12th LPGA title, her first since winning the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in the summer of 2014.

“The golf swing just felt really good today, probably as good as it has felt all year,” Lewis said.