(Sydney, Australia February 27 2003) England’s Laura Davies carried on her impressive run of form and fired a seven under par 65 to take a one shot lead after the first round of the $Aus500,000 AAMI Women’s Australian Open at Terrey Hills GC on the outskirts of Sydney.

Davies, winner of last week’s ANZ Ladies Masters, coasted around the course lobbing in six birdies, one bogey and rolled in a nine foot putt for eagle at her final hole to set the new course record.

The 39-year-old from Byfleet in Surrey leads Belgian Valerie Van Ryckeghem, who surprised everyone, not least herself with a flawless six under par 66.

Former Irish Amateur champion Rebecca Coakley from Australia and 21-year-old rookie Lorena Ochoa from Mexico share third place alongside Becky Morgan from Wales and a rejuvenated Alison Nicholas from England, who admitted to feeling more relaxed than ever on her way to a five under 67.

And rounding out the top ten after a glut of low scoring on a balmy day, five players are tied on four under par including Denmark’s Iben Tinning, Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson, Kelly Robbins from the USA and a brace of Australian’s, Mardi Lunn and Rachel Teske.

Defending champion Karrie Webb settled for a three under 69 to jump into a six way tie for 12th.

Davies, riding a wave of confidence, only used her driver eight times during the round, but reduced the tight, tricky layout to its knees with some imperious iron play and a sound short game.

Starting at the tenth, Davies made headway on her outward half with birdies at the first, second and fifth. She dropped her only shot of the day when bunkered at the 17th to turn in two under, but normal service resumed with red numbers at the opening two holes of her inward nine.

Pars followed until the eighth where she hit a wedge to ten feet to move to five under and at her final hole, after a massive 295-yard bash with her driver, Davies feathered a four iron in from 206-yards to round off a mesmerising display.

“It’s lovely, very enjoyable” grinned Davies. “I putted well and chipped well; I had two really hard chips and got them up and down.

“I used a lot of irons off the tee today as I don’t need a lot of length around here and I only used driver where I had to and it worked. Seven under at an Open is never a bad thing.”

And with the prospect of winning back-to-back titles, a feat she last achieved in 1994, winning the Irish and Scottish Women’s Opens in consecutive week’s, Davies was reserved with her prediction.

“That’s the main and only goal this week. I’m not saying I’m going to win it but I am certainly going to try and win it this week.

“I’ve definitely got my confidence back with the driver. I’m aiming down the fairways now where before, when I was using it, I looked at the trees down the left and cut it back in, but on my last hole today, I aimed straight at the flagstick, which was my line off the tee, and it never left it. It feels good to have a solid swing again.”

Van Ryckeghem has been off the radar over the last two years on the European Tour, partly because she agonised after missing out on an automatic spot for The Solheim Cup in 2000 and partly due to a recurring neck injury.

But the 27-year-old from Bruges relived her glory days, which included a win at the 1997 Sicilian Open. Six birdies, no bogies and a gritty par at the ninth hole after finding the trees after her tee shot, the Belgian number one was ecstatic, even though she admitted that going into this week, her confidence was rock bottom.

“I’m very surprised,” laughed Van Ryckeghem, who finished 8th at the Australian Open in 2000. “I’ve been playing so badly and hitting the ball so badly recently so I went out there today with nothing to lose.

“I just played the game I know and putted really well. I had 28 putts and missed only two greens. I’ve had a lot of injuries over the last season and I hope my neck holds out this year.

“Today was strange, I hit the ball well and everything went right and I think I have to take the confidence from it.”

Nicholas couldn’t remember the last time she had a five under par and is another who has been lacking confidence from her game almost since her last win, the 1999 Sunrise Open in Hawaii.

“It’s the first time I’ve been relaxed on a golf course for a long time,” said a joyful Nicholas, the 1997 US Open champion, who returns to Pumpkin Ridge GC in July, the scene of her only major victory.

“I just went out there today nice and relaxed and it was like how I used to play. I was hitting the driver really well and on some holes I just had wedges into the green, so that made things easier.”

And Morgan, playing in the blustery afternoon conditions, notched up six birdies and one bogey for her 67 and was delighted with both her score and the length of her drives.

“It did get tough out there, but I did get off to a good start with three straight birdies,” grinned Morgan, who finished 3rd last year at the Australian Open.

“I liked Yarra Yarra (venue for the last seven years) and was a bit disappointed when we weren’t going back there. But now I like this place, perhaps I just like the Australian Open.

“I had a lot of fun out there today and going downwind, some of my drives were going off the planet, which was nice as I don’t usually hit it that far!”