Perth’s World No.5 opened with a bogey-free 8-under 64 to sit just one shot behind first-round co-leaders Nasa Hataoka of Japan and China’s Ruoning Yin at the CME Group Tour Championship.
After beginning with three straight pars, Lee caught fire with eight birdies in her last 15 holes at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples.
“I hit a lot of good shots in today,” Lee said after icing her round with a 30-foot birdie putt from off the 18th green.
“Obviously giving myself a lot of birdie opportunities so I didn’t have too many putts that I had to save for par, which is always nice.
“Hopefully I can get it going, get it bogey-free for the rest of the week.”
A third victory from her past four starts would earn the 27-year-old the biggest purse in women’s golf – a cheque for $US2 million ($A3.1 million).
Lee, though, needs to beat one of the hottest fields of the year with all the 2023 major winners, including Yin, featuring in the elite 60-player $US7 million ($A10.8 million) showpiece.
Hataoka was the first to touch nine-under on Thursday and Yin matched her at the end of the afternoon, her final birdie coming at the par-5 17th hole.
Both leaders collected nine birdies and no bogeys to kick off the season-finale tournament.
Hataoka, 24, is bidding to end her winless drought that dates back to April 2022. She rolled in five birdies on the front nine and four more on the back.
Yin – the 21-year-old who won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June – followed suit with a three-birdie stretch from the sixth helping her to the front-nine 31. She narrowly missed a 10th birdie from long range at the par-4 18th.
The second-ranked Yin made it sound simple.
“I do my warm-up and I don’t feel today is the day,” she said.
“I was not in the mood for chatting. After nine holes, ‘OK, five under. Maybe I shouldnt talk that much.’
“I think this course really suits me. The fairway is wide open. The greens are not that hard. It’s not that long.
“Just tried to hit every fairway, every green and make the putt.”
American Alison Lee, Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit, England’s Georgia Hall, Hye-Jin Choi of South Korea and China’s Yu Liu are tied for fifth after posting six-under 66s.
Grace Kim, at three-under, is the next best Australian in a tie for 22nd.
Hannah Green is one stroke further back in a share of 32nd, with Sarah Kemp (71) and Steph Kyriacou (73) rounding out the Australian challenge.
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