ORLANDO, Fla. — Brooke Henderson enjoyed the opening day of a fresh LPGA Tour season a whole lot more than the tough, waning days of last season.
Her balky back feeling stronger and swinging a club more freely than she’d been able to since October, Henderson attacked Lake Nona on Thursday with six birdies for a 5-under 67 to take a one-shot lead at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
Henderson, who finished third in the Race to the CME Globe last year, started fast with birdies on three of her first eight holes. She added three more against one bogey on her inward nine to take a one-shot lead over Nelly Korda, who at No. 2 is the highest-ranked player in this week’s winners-only field.
“It does feel really good, to get off to a hot start, that’s always a great feeling,” said Henderson, who won twice last season, including her second career major, at the Evian Championship. “Hopefully I can continue it the next three days, a lot of momentum, and lots of birdies. You really need to go low here if the conditions are going to stay as nice as they are.”
A year ago, players were in wool caps and layers in unseasonably cool Florida weather. Thursday was kinder, a sunny day with temperatures climbing into the 80s.
Despite most players coming out of a brief offseason, few exhibited rust. Seventeen players broke par from the 29-player field of LPGA winners in 2021 and 2022.
Korda, who won the Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona in early 2021, nearly matched Henderson, making five birdies against a lone bogey in an opening 68.
She played alongside former MLB pitcher Derek Lowe, the defending champion from the celebrity-athlete division in the mixed field. There is a division for LPGA pros and one for the celebrities, each with its own prize fund. She and Lowe, paired together for three rounds in this event a year ago, spent the day spurring each other on to keep making birdies.
“I’m more rooting for her,” Lowe said. “It’s such a blessing to play with her. I hope she wins.”
England’s Charley Hull and first-time winners Gemma Dryburgh (Scotland) and Ashleigh Buhai (South Africa) opened with 69s. Defending champion Danielle Kang played her way onto the leaderboard early, but bogeys at 12 and 13 left her at 1-under 71, tied for ninth.
Henderson’s 2022 campaign ended with a whimper: She withdrew from her second-to-last start in November and gutted out a tie for seventh at the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida, where she lives. After that, it was time for some needed rest, then rehab for the back.
Henderson had a bag full of new clubs Thursday (so did Korda), and swung aggressively. Her lone blemish was a bogey at the par-3 17th, where she fanned an 8-iron short and failed to get up and down, but she got that shot back immediately with a birdie at the 388-yard 18th. She piped a drive into the fairway (she missed only two fairways), then hit pitching wedge to 15 feet, converting the putt for one last birdie.
As for the back? No pain.
“Today it was good, yeah, nothing, not even thinking about it,” she said. “I just make sure that I do the right things tonight (getting treatment) and tomorrow and hopefully the same moving forward.
“It’s great to be aggressive and be able to to after shots again.”
Leading the celebrity division was a familiar name to all — 72-time LPGA champion Annika Sorenstam, a Lake Nona resident. A runner-up in 2022, Sorenstam amassed 39 points in the Modified Stableford scoring system, two points better than 2021 champion Mardy Fish, a former tennis standout.
Her husband and caddie, Mike McGee, told her when the round ended it was her first bogey-free round in some time.
“Which wasn’t on my mind, but I am obviously very pleased to play here without a bogey,” Sorenstam said.