x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hjorth keeps her head to lead the way

It has been more than a decade since Maria Hjorth made her title-winning breakthrough as a professional.

Maria Hjorth fired a near-faultless round of 66 to finish the day with a useful two-stroke lead over the rest of the field.
Maria Hjorth fired a near-faultless round of 66 to finish the day with a useful two-stroke lead over the rest of the field.

DUBAI // It is more than a decade since Maria Hjorth made her title-winning breakthrough as a professional. Two wins in quick succession on the LPGA Tour in the United States suggested the Swede was destined to prove an outstanding foil for her illustrious compatriot Annika Sorenstam.

However, while Sorenstam, who celebrated her maiden victory in 1995, went on to amass a remarkable haul of 90 titles during her global travels before retiring at last year's Dubai Ladies Masters, Hjorth has had to be content with a mere five. She is well placed to make that six after an outstanding start to this year's Dubai tournament. A tremendous six-under par score of 66 earned her a useful two stroke advantage to carry in to today's second of four rounds.

After carelessly dropping her only shot of an impressive round on the first hole (her 10th), a booming drive down the long third hole ensured she remained on course to finish the day ahead. She needed only a wedge into the 451-yard par five and sank the eagle putt from 15ft to take her round into overdrive down the closing stretch. "My game has been in good shape for a while, which is nice," said Hjorth, 36. "I haven't played a tournament for a few weeks so it was good to go out there and keep things going well.

Hjorth became a mother at the start of this year when she gave birth to baby Emily and it seemed like she was destined to share the lead with a mum-to-be as Finland's Minea Blomqvist got to five-under par with six holes to play. Blomqvist, was delighted that the expectant father, Roope Kakko, a European Tour fringe player, was caddying for her. However, she was unable to keep up the pace, and bogeys at the 14th and 17th left her in a four-way tie for fourth place.

At one stage she was five-under and vying for the lead with Hjorth but found it tough on the way home as the conditions made low scoring difficult. "I was feeling a bit heavy out there," said Blomqvist, who will start her maternity leave after completing her business here on Saturday. "But my coach was out there helping me and he just told me to hit the ball more solid. And my boyfriend was helping me on the basic things."

Blomqvist, one of three pregnant women in the 108-woman field - Samantha Head and Diana Luna are the others - finished joint second of the morning starters but by the end of the afternoon she had been overtaken by three more players. Korea's Amy Yang is the most high-profile member of that trio bracketed together on four-under par. She has three Ladies European Tour victories to her credit and was looking like a potential leader after picking up three birdies in four holes after turning for home.

She was unable to make another in the remaining five, however, keeping her level with Thailand's Titiya Plucksataporn and Julieta Granada of Paraguay. France's Caroline Afonso looked set to end the opening day as Hjorth's nearest challenger and was within a shot of the lead until a disastrous quadruple bogey seven at the short seventh (her 16th) knocked her out of her stride and a bogey at the last left her at even par. Despite that late collapse, Afonso has only 20 players ahead of her in red figures.

Michelle Wie and Virginie Lagoutte Clement of France were tied with Blomqvist, a shot ahead of a quartet of players on two- under par with nine women standing at one-under the card. wjohnson@thenational.ae