By John O'Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Lydia Ko's meteoric rise to the top of women's golf has shown little sign of slowing down but the New Zealand teen was forced to take a back seat to a pair of former number ones at the HSBC Women's Champions on Thursday.
The 17-year-old phenomenon arrived in Singapore fresh from her Australian and New Zealand Open victories and an opening round four-under 68 at the testing Serapong Course put her well in contention for a hat-trick just two shots off the lead.
"I'm tired. A little bit jet-lagged because of the long flight but I've been trying to pace myself, go nine holes and do the least amount of practice," Ko told reporters before turning her attention to the searing Singapore temperatures.
"I think just this week, the heat is definitely going to get to me, so I'm just going to try and cool down."
Ko's predecessor at the top of the rankings Park In-bee made the most of cooler early conditions to fire a bogey-free six-under 66 to claim a tie for first place along with Taiwan's Yani Tseng, who is showing glimpses of a return to form after a two-year slump.
American Angela Stanford, who won the restricted field $1.4 million event in 2012, sits alone in third place on five-under, with Ko lurking in a group of five players two off the pace on a day of low scoring at the Sentosa Golf Club.
Fellow American Lexi Thompson had the shot of the day, an ace on the par-three 14th, to sit in another group of five players on three-under for the tournament.
Park claimed she was keen to regain the world number one ranking when Ko usurped her at the start of February and her play on Thursday indicated the South Korean was motivated by that desire to get back to the top.
After parring the first eight holes on the trickier front nine, Park kickstarted her round with a birdie on the ninth and soared to the top of the leaderboard with five more birdies on the back nine.
"I didn't play too aggressively on the front nine but wasn't able to do what I wanted to do," Park said. "But I was able to make a birdie on nine and that kind of got me started on doing things.
"The back nine was a great nine. I holed a lot of putts, hit great shots. If I can play the back nine like that, it's going to be a good week."
Tseng enjoyed a faster start than Park and offset a bogey on the par-four fifth with three birdies on her front nine before going bogey-free down the stretch with four more birdies to join the Korean ahead of the chasing pack.
The 26-year-old Taiwanese dominated women's golf at the start of the decade, sitting on top of the world rankings for 109 weeks from 2011 before a woeful run of results saw her slip to 90th a fortnight ago prior to her morale-boosting second place finish in Thailand last week.
Defending champion Paula Creamer had a day to forget, the American shooting a two-over 74 to sit tied for 51st in the 63-player field.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)