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Sarah Schmelzel, 29 years of age and currently ranked 107 in the world, had an opening 67 in the first round of the HSBC Women’s World Championship which left her a shot ahead of such LPGA luminaries as Esther Henseleit, Linn Grant and Lilia Vu.

The American had five birdies in a row on the second half of the Tanjong course, the half she played first. It was the easier nine holes but, in fairness, nothing was easy on a day when the greens were dry and hard.

Whether or not Schmelzel goes on to win is another thing, but she certainly has a winning story to tell, one which started on March 16, 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona.  That was the day when her father, Dennis, a mad-keen golfer, pulled her out of school and raced up to Moon River to watch Annika Sorenstam finish her third round in the LPGA’s Standard Register Ping tournament at the club.  Word had reached him that the Swede was in particularly scintillating form.

The schoolteachers could well have been all set to complain about what the dad had done. As it was, they would have accepted that he was in the right as Sorenstam returned the 59 which has had her labelled “Miss 59” ever since.

“That’s when I fell in love with the game,” Schmelzel told Bret Lasky when she was playing on the Epsom Tour where he was the media manager.

She won her LPGA players’ card in 2019 and nothing much happened until the Drive On championship of ’22. Out of nowhere, she had six birdies in seven holes to shoot up the leaderboard and finish joint third. That she had five consecutive birdies at Sentosa would seem to emphasise that she is made of the right stuff.

She certainly had what it takes to hang on to her four-under par total when the cameras and the crowds caught up with her as she was playing down her 18th hole with the 15-year-old Singaporean qualifier, Xingtong Chen. Inevitably, the expectation was that nerves might come into play for both of them, but Schmelzel made a grand four to stay put at the top of the leaderboard while the teenager received the same level of applause for her 75.

When Chen’s hands had been shaking as she started off down the tenth, she told herself that she had nothing to get stressed about when she was the only amateur in the field. Also, she had listened to what Sorenstam had to say at her Thursday clinic about how she should focus on her game rather than anyone else’s.

Meanwhile, when she was asked by an official which of the players had gone out of their way to be kind to her over the practice days, she selected Lydia Ko. 

“Have you seen what she scored?” the official went on to ask. Chen looked down the list and found to her mingled amazement and disbelief, that she had matched Lydia’s 75 and the two of them were in a share of 53rd place.

In other words, a bad day for Lydia, but the best of days for her.

Where Ko had no birdies, Lilia Vu, the No. 1 in the world, had no bogies. The latter is trying not to look for too much from herself after a ’23 season in which her four wins included two majors. “A couple of wins here and there will do me this year,” came her smiling suggestion.

Germany’s Henseleit, though two over par after four, had four birdies in a row from the fifth on route to her 69, while Sweden’s Grant surprised no-one when she carded the same score in an often pesky wind..

Patty Tavatanakit, who came to Singapore having won each of her last two tournaments, is lying a share of 30th place after a 72. However, as the commentators were quick to say, she is only five shots behind the leader and has three rounds in which to put things to rights. 

Leaderboard Quotes:

American Sarah Schmelzel opened with a 5-under 68 to finish one shot ahead after round one. This is the first time in her career that she has led or co-led after a round of individual play.

On today’s round which included five birdies on her back nine…

“It was good, a little shaky at the start, the front nine made some good par saves, three of them scattered over the front nine. It was about good, then just got some putts to go in on my back nine on the front. Everything felt good. Working on some stuff so it’s nice to see some hard work pay off. Just keep it going.”

On leading a tournament for the first time…

“There’s a first time for everything, I guess.”

On being in the lead at one of the strongest events of the year…

“It’s one round. I think any of us can play really well on a given day but it’s an honour to play in this tournament. You know when you qualify for it, that it’s the best of the best in the world come to go play in one spot. So its just an honour to play here”

World No.1 Lilia Vu opened with a bogey-free round 69 to sit at T2.

On being in second place after a three-under par…

“I think I was surprised that the scores were so high. I always expect at least 6-under to be the leader. But yeah, it shows how tough the course is playing and it’s a good challenge.”

On the playing conditions…

“The course is playing way more difficult than last year, and I knew that coming into today. Just trying to birdie where I can and take the par when you can. I think the humidity is around the same. I think maybe last year, since there was more rain and less wind, so we could go for pins and know that it’s going to stick there. But this year, the greens are playing firmer. Still a little sandy but you just have to play your way around. You can’t hit to tucked pins. You have to take your medicine and just have a 20-footer to try and make a birdie.”

Five-time LET winner Linn Grant also shot 69, sitting at T2.

On her game…

“I would say confused with my ball-striking for the past week. Like this morning, I really tried to take my time on the range and find something that felt, like, good enough, and that I can play with, and I was trying to be very focused on every shot and not just take anything for granted.

In my mind, I was just playing very simple, just thinking one shot at a time. Especially with the wind, that’s usually a good way of playing.”

On changing her strategy for the new bunker on 18…

“I kind of carried the first part of it, so I hit a good drive over it but it went left into the bunker, which forces you to go a bit more right where you don’t want to be. It’s one of those tee shots you have to have your focus on.”

Joining Vu and Grant is Germany’s Esther Henseleit, who opened with a 3-under 69, marking her best score on this course.

On what she worked on during her off season…

“I worked a bit on my technique. Just keep improving my swing. Worked a lot on my putting, and also in the gym; I think I’m hitting it a bit further than last year, and here, it’s definitely a big advantage if you can go for some of the par 5s. Yeah, it’s nice to see it pay off.”

On qualifying for this event…

“I had a really good year last year, and I feel like these Asian tournaments are kind of a bonus for all the players that come here. It’s a small field and we can kind of get a head start. Yeah, it’s great to be back here.”

This year’s local qualifier Xing Tong Chen carded an opening 76 which included three birdies on her front nine. Chen lies in T53 with LPGA stars such as World no.7 Lydia Ko and World No.10 Xiyu Lin.

On meeting golf legend Annika Sorenstam yesterday…

“I was so scared to meet her yesterday, I felt like today wasn’t that bad. So it calmed me down a bit more. I managed to focus on my game and stuff just like being so starstruck about everyone around me.”

Credit: IMG.COM

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