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Sophia Popov of Germany hits her tee shot on the 14th hole during the first round of the Pelican Women's Championship at Pelican Golf Club on November 19, 2020 in Belleair, Florida.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Women’s British Open winner Sophia Popov left top-ranked playing partner Jin Young Ko and everyone else behind Thursday in the Pelican Women’s Championship.

Popov shot a six-under 64 in windy conditions to take a two-stroke lead over Ashleigh Buhai, with Ko eight shots behind after a 72 in her first LPGA Tour start of the year.

Popov was the surprise winner at Royal Troon in August.

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“I think I’m playing with a different confidence level,” Popov said. “You know, the shots are there. I always had them, I felt like. I think mentally I’ve never felt as freed up as I do now. I don’t know if that’s from winning the tournament or just over all just having more fun out here. Having obviously an exemption for the next couple years just frees up the swing a little bit, my mindset, I can be a little bit more aggressive, and I think I just took advantage of that.”

At the tricky Pelican Golf Club, the German birdied the last five holes for a front-nine 29, then cooled off on the back with two birdies and two bogeys – the last on the par-four 18th.

“I felt pretty confident coming into the round,” Popov said. “Honestly, probably didn’t see that many birdies on my front. I thought with the wind the course is playing really tough, and surprised myself a little on that front nine. Tried to keep it going, but think the other nine is definitely tough and so I’m happy with my score.”

Buhai birdied three of the last four holes.

“You just have to stay patient, hit to the big parts of the green,” the South African said. “I think in order to shoot a low score today, you got to have a hot putter, especially this afternoon. The greens firmed up a lot and it was difficult to get it close. That’s what I did. I made some good putts coming down. I hit it close on 17 and then holed a nice one on 18 for birdie.”

Ko, the No. 1 player in the world for the past 68 weeks, has been home in South Korea since the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to play three straight tournaments through the U.S. Women’s Open.

Ally McDonald, playing alongside Popov and Ko in an afternoon threesome, was at 67 with Women’s PGA champion Sei Young Kim, the No. 2 player in the world.

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“Honestly, my ball-striking wasn’t that great,” McDonald said. “I just felt like my timing was just a little bit off.”

McDonald won her first LPGA Tour title last month in the Drive On Championship-Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia.

Canadians Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont., and Hamilton’s Alena Sharp and Australia’s Minjee Lee topped the group at 68.

“It’s definitely a tricky golf course,” Henderson said. “You got to be careful out there. It can kind of jump up and bite you if you’re not paying attention, and especially with how windy it was earlier today.”

Local favourite Brittany Lincicome and Jessica Korda shot 69.

“A lot of the holes it seemed like it was a left-to-right wind, which being a draw player was just really messing with my swing,” Lincicome said. “You have to miss it in the right spot, and I feel like I missed it in the wrong spot a few times.”

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Lexi Thompson had a hole-in-one on the 162-yard third hole, her 12th of the day.

The first-year tournament was originally to be held the same week as the PGA Championship in May.

Camilo Villegas, Matt Wallace tied for lead at Sea Island

Moving on from a devastating summer of losing his child, Camilo Villegas made a 10-foot birdie putt on his final hole Thursday for a six-under 64 and a share of the lead with Matt Wallace in the RSM Classic.

Villegas and Wallace each finished on the Seaside course at Sea Island with big putts. Villegas capped off a bogey-free round on the ninth hole for his lowest score on the PGA Tour in four years. Wallace hit into a hazard on the 18th and saved par with a 30-foot putt.

They were a shot ahead of eight players, a group that included Sea Island resident Patton Kizzire and Robert Streb, who won his only PGA Tour title at Sea Island five years ago. They each had five-under 67 on the Plantation course, which played about three-quarters of a shot harder.

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Villegas was trying to return from a shoulder injury that kept him out all of 2019 when he and wife learned early this year their two-year-old daughter, Mia, had tumours developing on her brain and spine. She was going through chemotherapy when she died in July.

He’s trying to move on and hang on to memories, and he had one immediately while warming up with his brother, Manny, working as his caddie.

“Got on the range and see a little rainbow out there. I start thinking about Mia and said, ‘Hey, let’s have a good one.’ Nice to have Manny on the bag and yes, it was a good ball-striking round, it was a great putting round. I was pretty free all day.”

Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., and Roger Sloan, from Merritt, B.C., are the top Canadians at three under after opening with 67s on the Seaside course. Nick Taylor, from Abbotsford, B.C., also played Seaside and fired a three-over 73.

The other four Canadians started play on the Plantation course.

Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., shot a one-over 73, while David Hearn, from Brantford, Ont., (74), Abbotsford’s Adam Hadwin (76) and Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont., (79) are well back heading into the second round.

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