Thomas Björn revisited familiar territory at the Emirates Golf Club when he claimed a share of the first round lead in the Dubai Desert Classic for the second successive year. Now the Dane hopes the portents for the weekend are as auspicious as they were 12 months ago when he went on to capture the title in spectacular style.
Last year, Björn shot a 64 to share the lead with World Number One, Tiger Woods. This time he moved into a tie with fellow Scandinavian Robert Karlsson of Sweden on 67, five under par, over an Emirates playing appreciably longer and harder than when Björn edged Woods and Padraig Harrington into second place.
Björn and Karlsson lead by a stroke from five players on 68 – Ernie Els, Niclas Fasth, Sam Torrance, Olle Karlsson (no relation to Robert), Ryder Cup Captain Sam Torrance and Korean Charlie Wi.
Playing his first competitive round of 2002 following a period of recuperation from neck and shoulder injuries, Björn showed he had not lost his cutting edge over the winter, despite confessing to feeling nervous at the start of the day, mainly due to his long lay-off and the fact that he is a winter resident in Dubai.
He admitted: “I felt that way because I had been off for so long. I don’t think I would have been nervous going to play anywhere else but I know about 75 per cent of the people in the crowd here. Also, I came into the tournament as defending champion and people expect a lot of me.
“I didn’t have any expectations. I knew I was swinging the club well but I would have taken anything under par for my first competitive round of the year. I knew if I went out and hit the shots I’ve been hitting on the range then I could shoot 64 but it could also have all gone up in the air.”
For a while, the spectators might have thought they were seeing double with the name of Karlsson appearing alongside one another at the top of the leaderboard. Eventually, it was Robert who gained a slender edge over Olle with his 67 to his fellow countryman’s 68.
It has been a slow start to the year for Robert, who could scarcely be mistaken for Olle, who at 5ft 9in is dwarfed by the 6ft 5in four-time winner on The European Tour. Karlsson revealed that becoming a father for the first time just before Christmas had delayed his progress, but he is now focused on his game again.
“Thea, my baby daughter, was born on the 19th of December and I was getting used to being a father when I went to Australia. Perhaps I should have practised instead of playing. However I’ve got over the shock of being a dad and I’ve practised hard during my break.”
Playing with Els, Karlsson birdied the final hole to move ahead of his playing partner and said: “It definitely helps playing with Ernie. First of all he’s a relaxed guy and with the crowds here following him, it all adds a bit of focus to it all.”
Els, who established the course record of 61 eight years ago, never looked like threatening that score, but he always looked capable of threatening the lead with a round of five birdies and only one bogey.
The ‘Big Easy’, fresh from his victory in the Genuity Championship on the US PGA Tour, acknowledged that he was ready to play again after savouring his first victory in the United States for 19 months.
“I felt good today” he said. “The celebrations and all that stuff was done and dusted. It’s not like I’ve got a hangover from the previous week. I like the course and I’m ready to play.”
The “other” Karlsson, Olle, is the latest player to pay a visit to Belgian sports psychologist, Jos Vanstiphout. He said: “I went to Jos and he helped me out with a little bit of mental stuff and that made a big difference today. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him and it seemed like a good thing to do.”
Fasth, who put up a strong showing at the World Golf Campionships-Accenture Match Play in California, gave a big hint that he will be a force to be reckoned with this season by shooting four birdies without a single error on his card.
Meanwhile Torrance, who underwent keyhole surgery on his left knee only six weeks ago, birdied four successive holes from the second on his way to starting his 31st season on The European Tour with a bang.
Like Björn, Torrance admitted to a touch of nerves after his long absence from competitive golf, but clearly neither the break nor the surgery proved to be an obstacle. He explained: "My knee just went one day at home and I couldn’t move the next day. I went to see my physio who said it was a cartilage problem and I saw a surgeon the same night and had the operation the next day.
“It was just down to wear and tear. I hadn’t had any problems before and it seems fine now. Today was all a bit of a shock, to be honest, but a nice way to start the year.”