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WARD IS IN POSITION FOR MAJOR PAYBACK

Maybe this course simply owes Wendy Ward one. Or maybe that's just golf. You know, rub of the green and all that stuff.

With six holes remaining in last year's McDonald's LPGA Championship, Ward was two shots behind leader Juli Inkster, her playing partner in the final group. While lining up a putt for bogey, she noticed that her ball had moved, ever so slightly. Didn't matter. She immediately called a one-shot penalty on herself, then knocked it in for double bogey. She came back with a birdie at No. 14, but still finished one stroke out of a playoff, which Inkster won over Stefania Croce on the second extra hole.

Thursday, Ward carded a 6-under-par 65 at DuPont Country Club, to take a one-shot lead over Becky Iverson and Akiko Fukushima after the weather-interrupted opening round of the third women's major of the season. Ward is not dealing with what might have been, rather what could be.

"It was an unfortunate situation," said Ward, who also tied for fourth here in 1998. "But there's nothing I can do about it this year, so I've kind of moved on past that. I feel like each time I come back, I've got a lot of room to improve. (There's been) a lot of great memories (too).

"Actually, I had a few (wedge shots) last year that I felt cost me more around the green than that particular incident, and that's what I think I left more frustrated with than anything, because I didn't get up and down (from off the green) on the 18th hole to make the playoff."

She didn't take home the trophy. She did leave with her integrity.

"I got a lot of good response from what happened," said Ward, who had seven birdies and a bogey Thursday. "A couple players came up to me and said, 'Tough break, but it's actually happened to me, too.' Janice Moodie informed me that it happened to her and she lost (an event in Scotland).

"I'll tell you one more thing, and then I really don't care to talk about it anymore. It was a distraction. I lost my momentum. In major championships, it all comes down to one shot, generally. That's the nature of golf. I've had some close ones this year. That just gives me confidence. I know my turn is coming up again soon."

Ward finished some 45 minutes before play was suspended for just over an hour at 5:19 p.m. because of lightning.

Ward is one of those young Americans who many folks keep hoping can at least slow the current foreign dominance.

"I grew up playing college golf (at Arizona State) going head-to- head with Annika (Sorenstam) for two years," Ward said. "I look at the players who are on top right now, and I've kind of competed with them all along, (except at the) professional (level). It's just a matter of their game being a little bit ahead. There's no pressure. To me, it's time to get focused and step it up a notch."

By the look of the leader board, she might not have any choice. Once you get past Iverson and Fukushima, who played in the morning in the same group, there's a lot of serious names who figure to make themselves a big part of the weekend story line.

Karrie Webb and Laura Davies were joined by Laura Diaz, at 4-under 67. And Sorenstam is one of five at 68.

Webb, of course, is coming off a runaway victory at the Open, her fourth triumph in the last seven majors. She would complete the career Grand Slam by making it five of eight. Curiously, the 26-year-old Australian has never been a serious factor here.

Davies, who won two weeks ago in Rochester, has won here three times, twice since it became a major, the last in 1996. And she's nearly won on two other occasions.

Sorenstam has regained the top spot in the world rankings by winning five times this season, including four in a row and her third major.

Neither Davis nor Sorenstam birdied any of the three par fives. Webb didn't either, although she made up for it by sinking a 30-foot eagle putt at No. 16.

"That was a bit of a bonus," said Webb, who was 3-under after five holes. "I felt like I struck the ball for the most part reasonably well. I had a bit of a lapse of concentration there through the middle holes. A couple of poor swings. But fortunately, I was able to get up and down and not do any damage. I didn't put myself in too much trouble."

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