Secrets of the desert send Bjorn into lead

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They had all that desert and yet had to plonk the Emirates Golf Course down by the motorway. To be fair, traffic on the main Dubai-Abu Dhabi road has increased greatly in the last decade and a half since the course was first magically created.

And, despite the noise, the course is still magical and has matured remarkably, the flora and fauna adding beauty to what is a superbly conditioned lay-out. The course was closed for three weeks before yesterday's first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

"With the greens this firm, the course is trickier than ever," said the defending champion, Thomas Bjorn, who winters in Dubai. Although attached to Dubai Creek, the Dane also plays regularly at Emirates and appreciates a lay-out that maintains a modicum of subtlety even in the era of technologically enhanced power.

"You have to know your way around this course, even if it looks straightforward," Bjorn added. "There are some lines off the tees that can be key and I know them. And I won't be telling the other players. Over the week, I think I can get away with more than other people here because I know my way around. Today, I had a bad start but made sure I missed the fairways on the best side."

A year ago Bjorn defeated Tiger Woods to win the title. Yesterday, in his first competitive round for almost three months, he shared the lead with Sweden's Robert Karlsson on 67, five under par. "I was a little nervous on the first tee," Bjorn admitted. "I know 75 per cent of the gallery and they expect a lot after last year."

Bjorn did not drop a shot, although that did not look likely when he had to hole from eight feet on the first and 10 feet on the second for pars. He chipped in for a birdie on the fourth and had another at the sixth despite snap-hooking his drive and then hitting a five-wood from 250 yards to five feet.

His playing partners were Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam, who he outscored by four and six shots, respectively. Montgomerie had a typically fretful round when, in contrast with Bjorn, his golf was not reflected in the score. "I wasn't playing very well and Monty kept reminding me," Bjorn laughed. "I had a freshness today which helped me to fight hard and play with a big heart. After so long off, and because the tournament is here, I was really looking forward to this."

Playing Ernie Els – comfortably positioned on four under – helped Karlsson focus on his round. The Swede's three tournaments in Australia last month passed in the blur of new fatherhood. "I feel more used to the shock now," he said.

The arrival of Thea has also helped Karlsson tone down his appetite for weird and wonderful diets. Just drinking milk was an easy one but he has also been known to grow wheat seeds in his hotel bath. "They have more energy if they have started growing," he said. "My girlfriend has enough with being a mother to put her through the hassle of all my diets."

Sam Torrance returned to the tour with four birdies in his first five holes in his 68. The Ryder Cup captain can concentrate solely on his golf until the match is played in September. Paul Broadhurst had a 69 two years after injuring his hand at the Creek. He was out for 15 months after operations to remove a bit of bone on the tendons and finished 157th on the Order of Merit last year.