Finland’s Toni Karjalainen got off to a sensational start at the European Challenge Tour’s Thomas Björn Open presented by Multidata, carding what was a brilliant first round of five under par 66 over the highly demanding Esbjerg Golfklub to take a two shot lead from South Africa’s Michael Kirk.
With its narrow fairways and punishing rough, Esbjerg Golfklub is a truly tough test of golf that saw just 20 out of the 156 players negotiating under par during round one of the tournament that would not have been possible without the backing of European Tour star Björn – one of the Challenge Tour’s most successful graduates who is supporting the event financially as well as in name.
Björn himself would have been tested to the full to top Karjalainen’s opening score around this excellent golf course, the 25 year old Finn posting that opening 66 to lead Kirk by two, with seven players – including the Challenge Tour’s most recent champion, Fredrik Widmark of Sweden, and the elading Danish player, Jeppe Huldahl – in a tie for third place on two under par.
Kirk made a brilliant recovery to climb into second place after playing his first seven holes in two over par. The South African banished his two dropped shots in the space of two holes (the eighth and ninth) and then surged forward with further birdies at the tenth, 11th and 13th to take second place on the leaderboard.
Karjalainen picked up his first shot of the day on the par five fifth, and followed it up with another two birdies on the seventh and eight to turn in three under 32. The 25 year old made a further three birdies on the back nine before dropping his only stroke of the round on the 17th, where he was snared by the viscous rough that guards Esbjerg Golfklub’s fairways.
“I did things right today – I hit fairways, greens and made putts. I played well because this is a very tough course, in fact if the conditions are to get any worse then I may have to put the clubs away and forget about it! That’s how tough it is, but that is the way that it should be for the players on the Challenge Tour.
“Playing on courses like this one is all part of the process of becoming a better player. You have to play tough courses in tough conditions because that is the only way that you can really improve your game.”
Karjalainen, playing in his first full season on the Challenge Tour, is part of a new generation of golfers emerging from Finland that includes Challenge Tour winner Roope Kakko, who won his native Open last season while still an Amateur. Karjalainen believes that Finland can start producing golfing champions on a regular basis, given the rising popularity of the sport in Finland.
“Golf is the fastest growing sport in Finland now,” said Karjalainen, who graduated on a golf scholarship from Averett University in America before turning professional. “It is becoming very popular and the coaches and people in charge of the game are doing a good job – there are a lot of talented young players coming through now and hopefully we will have a lot more top players in the coming years.
“The only thing that holds Finland back is the weather that we have at home because you can only really play for six months of the year in Finland. But I think a lot of the best young players will go to University or College in America and that is the way to do it.”