Laura Davies was already 6 under par after eight holes and looking at a relatively easy 15-foot straight-on uphill putt today on No. 18 at the DuPont Country Club when she began thinking, "If I make this, it's on." Instead, her birdie attempt just lipped out, and Davies -- who had started her first round of the LPGA Championship on the back nine -- had to settle for par before making the turn.

A few hours later, veteran Rosie Jones found herself at 7 under par after 10 holes, and also admitted that, like Davies, she was beginning to think the unthinkable: a round for the ages, maybe even a 59, which no woman has ever shot on the LPGA Tour.

Golf is a game of ifs and buts and might have beens, all of which applied both to Jones and to Davies today in the opening round of the third women's major tournament of the year. In the end, Jones stalled with three straight pars and a bogey and finished with a 7-under 64, tying a personal best and missing the course record by a shot.

Davies, who shot a course record 6-under 30 on her first nine holes, ended up alone in second place with a 65, thinking about what might have been. If she had made that putt for a 29 on her front side, Davies, arguably England's greatest woman golfer, was convinced she would have had a solid chance at 59, and maybe even better.

Instead, she ran off nine straight pars, missing four putts inside 10 feet over the last four holes, including a four-footer at No. 9 that hit the cup but stayed out to finish her round.

"I'm really disappointed," said Davies, a two-time champion in this event. "I must admit, I was a bit frustrated signing my card at 65. [Shooting 59] went through my mind at 18. All I was thinking about is knock this in, shoot 30 on the back and you've done it."

Jones, who also started her round on the back nine, also had 30 at the turn. And when she birdied the first hole -- her 10th -- with an eight-footer, she and her caddie began to dream, too.

"I don't care who you are out there," Jones said. "You're definitely thinking about it. If you can put it aside and keep doing what you're doing, it's possible. I don't think it stopped me. I had chances to better myself out there. But no matter what, I was playing a pretty good round."

There were plenty of those today, with six players, including former U.S. Open champions Lisolette Neumann and Alison Nicholas, shooting 4-under 67. Defending champion Se Ri Pak was in a group of nine players at 68, along with '99 Open champion Juli Inkster, who birdied four of her last six holes, and third-place Open finisher Kelli Kuehne.

Jones, who has nine LPGA victories but has never won a major title, totalled eight birdies and a bogey at the 167-yard 5th hole when she couldn't get up and down out of a bunker with a 22-foot putt. Her round included 23 putts on a warm, breezy day and was not quite as precise as Davies' effort, even if she was one shot better.

Jones had to scramble to save pars from off the green at No. 2 and from a bunker at No. 4. She missed three makable putts inside 12 feet, including a six-footer at No. 3. Davies said she had one of her "best ball-striking days ever" and hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation.

Davies favors the long 6,376-yard DuPont course because it rewards her great distance off the tee while also allowing her to hit her driver eight or nine times in each round. In most events on the LPGA circuit, she is usually pulling it out only once or twice a day on courses set up for medium-range hitters.

Today, she said an 8-iron was her longest club into any of the par-4s, and she is also able to reach each of the three par-5s on the par-71 course in two. The only green she missed came at the 184-yard 13th, where she was short by a yard and put her second-shot chip inches from the cup for a tap-in par.

In short, it was a remarkable round of golf for a woman who dominated the game in the mid-1990s, but who is just now starting to regain the confidence in her putting stroke that seemed to desert her for most of the past two years. In '98, for exam

Davies traded caddies with her friend Nicholas for this week, because she had won here twice with Mark Fulcher, now Nicholas's regular caddie. Nicholas is using Davies' man, Paul Clifford, and said when she saw Davies' score after nine holes, "I figured the change would be permanent now."

"When I saw that Laura was 6 under after eight holes, I just thought here we go, there could be some serious numbers," Nicholas said. "From what I gather, she's played very well the last six weeks. She looks like she has great confidence coming back here. She loves this golf course and always plays well here."

Playing partner Neumann got to see Davies' round up close and personal and said later, "She should have had 59 today. I can't believe how many putts didn't drop for her. It was very, very impressive. If she would have made the putt at 18, maybe things really would have started going her way there on the back nine. She missed a lot of little putts."

CAPTION: Rosie Jones had a first-nine 30, was 7 under after 10, then had to settle for 7-under 64, lead in first round.

CAPTION: England's Laura Davies can overpower this 6,376-yard course, but uses finesse here to chip onto the 13th green, the only one she missed in regulation.