CARMEL, Ind. -- Before the 48th United States Women's Open championship began, veteran players were calling the last three holes of the Crooked Stick Golf Club as hard as any they had played.
While others were crashing around her, Helen Alfredsson, in the midst of an outstanding Ladies Professional Golf Association tour season, sailed down the stretch with three successive birdies to take the early first-round lead with a 4-under-par 34-3468.
Later, Ayako Okamoto birdied 14 and 15 to get to 4 under, then parred the last three for 34-3468, and a share of the lead.
Play had to be suspended because of darkness, and 15 players will return this morning to complete their rounds.
For the first round, No. 18 played the hardest (4.695), No. 16 second (4.626), and No. 17 seventh (3.326).
The two 68s were followed by Dawn Coe-Jones at 69, and six at 70, including Amy Alcott and Nancy Lopez.
Alfredsson, the latest Swedish star, and winner of the Dinah Shore (one of the tour's major titles) in April, had her problems early, getting to 3 under, going back to even after 11, then birdieing 12 (30 feet), 15 (on in two and two putts at the par 5), 17 (20 feet), and 18 (nine feet).
"I know that whatever happens at an Open, you have to stay calm," she said. "I'm not very patient, but you learn. You have to try and relax and be calm, because you know that others are going to make mistakes."
Did they ever. After bogeying the 18th to fall out of a share of the lead, Coe-Jones declared, "Those are three of the toughest finishing holes we'll ever play -- without a doubt."
They devoured Alcott when she was on her way to her best round of the year. She was leading at 5 under par, until losing her concentration on No. 16, and bogeying the last three holes to slip back to 70, which equaled her low round of the year.
On the 16th green, she thought her ball moved, asked the others in the group, Betsy King and Hollis Stacy, and they weren't sure. "I called for a ruling when my ball moved. I couldn't say if I had grounded my putter."
Although there was no penalty, "It shook me up." Even later she could still say, "I felt as though a round like this had been coming for a while. To make six birdies on a course like this, you have to be driving it straight."
Others who had problems included Lopez, still chasing that elusive Open title, who bogeyed the last hole; Hiromi Kobayashi, winner at the JAL Big Apple last week, bogeyed 16 and doubled 17 for 71; King, who followed an eight at No. 8 with a double bogey at the 16th and a bogey at the 18th, yet still shot 74; and Baltimore's Tina Barrett, who had a bogey at 18 for 73.
Barrett birdied the first two holes -- a 7-iron shot to four feet and a 3-iron shot to three feet -- then bogeyed the fourth and doubled the eighth (hit it in the water), before turning even with a birdie at the ninth.
On the back nine, her only deviation from par came at 18, where her approach shot rolled into the back rough. The only place she could put it on the sharply undulated surface was 25 feet away, and she left her first putt on the edge of the cup.
"I played smart, very controlled," she said of her round. "I hit the driver well (missed one fairway) and irons, too (hit 15 greens), although I was hitting them thin. The best struck iron was the 3-iron at the second hole (376 yards).
Sarah Ingram, formerly of Owings Mills, birdied the eighth and ninth holes to turn 2 under, then, in the length of time it took her to play No. 10, she was on and off the leader board.
She found the lake that separates the 10th and 18th fairways twice, going (10) and coming (18) for double bogeys and wound up at 76. As well as she played on the front, she struggled on the back.
"I think I got tense after the drive on 10, and my timing was off," Ingram said. "I putted well throughout, but did not drive it as well on the back as the front."
NOTES: Kim Williams of Potomac had putting woes and wound up 39-3877. . . . Young driving standouts Brandi Burton and Kelly Robbins each eagled the 435-yard, par-5 ninth, Burton with driver, 5-iron to eight feet, and Robbins, driver, 8-iron, and chipped in from the fringe.