Sophia Popov surges to first-round lead at Pelican Women’s Championship

Germany’s Sophia Popov blistered the front nine, and raced out to an opening-round lead at the Pelican Women’s Championship on Thursday at Belleair, Fla.

Popov bagged six birdies on her first nine holes, including five in a row to end the front nine, on her way to a 6-under-par 64 for the lead in the inaugural event. Popov, 28, won her first and only LPGA event so far, in August when she was the surprise winner at the Women’s British Open.

“You know, in [Wednesday’s] pro-am I had a good nine holes if you can even, I don’t know, rate that at all,” Popov said. “I was hitting it really well.

“I think mentally I’ve never felt as freed up as I do now.”

South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai was in second, two shots back with a first-day 66. She closed strong, with three birdies on her final four holes.

“In order to shoot a low score today you got to have a hot putter, especially this afternoon,” Buhai said. “The greens firmed a lot and it was difficult to get it close.

“That’s what I did. I made some good putts coming down.”

World No. 2 Sei Young Kim, of South Korea, and Ally McDonald were tied for third after shooting 3 under 67s. Kim made her move on the back nine with four birdies, while McDonald fared well early with three birdies on the front side.

Eight other players were four shots off the pace at 2 under, including world-ranked Brooke Henderson (7) and Minjee Lee (8).

The world’s top ranked player, South Korea’s Jin Young Ko, also made her return to the LPGA Tour. Due in part to an ankle injury, Ko had not competed since the 2019 season wrapped up.

Ko had an opening round 2 over 72, and ended the round tied for 46th overall.

The Pelican Women’s Championship, despite being held for the first time, had an impressive field with six of the world’s top 10 ranked players in the mix. Besides Ko, Kim, Henderson and Lee, Nasa Hataoka (No. 6) and Sung Hyun Park (9) are all part of the field.

Hataoka, from Japan, shot 1 over and was tied for 35th. Park, from South Korean, was 4 over on the day and tied for 79th.

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