[PHOTOS: Getty Images]
One of the more under-appreciated performances in Australian professional golf in 2023 was the renaissance of Sarah Kemp.
At 37, Kemp authored her best LPGA Tour season of the 16 she’s embarked upon, finishing 59th on the Race to the CME Globe in a feat she attributes to being “emotionally smarter” and emphasising quality over quantity in her tournament preparation.
That approach yielded a trio of top-10 finishes and is a formula she’ll lean on again as her 2024 campaign gets underway this week at the LPGA Drive On Championship in Florida.
After navigating several seasons when she didn’t have full playing rights on tour, this year Kemp has the luxury of knowing she’s eligible for almost every LPGA tournament, either via her moneylist position last year or her world ranking.
While acknowledging that a career revival in the late 30s or 40s is less common in women’s golf, Kemp also concedes there was some mystery to her improved play. Yet rather than attempting to decipher it, she’s content to ride the same wave.
“I’m still trying to figure that out myself,” Kemp told Australian Golf Digest in the days before Christmas. “I’m actually going to do that with my coach, John Serhan. We’re going to get a good debrief on how it’s going, but [I’d put it down to] probably just understanding myself better – what I do well and what I do well being on tour.”
Kemp says she used to arrive at tournaments on the Sunday night before they started because that’s what she thought was required. She’d then toil from the Monday onwards – “I probably just felt like I had to spend all day at the golf course.”
Now, though, she understands the value of less often equalling more. “I probably spent less time at tournaments, but got my work done in a shorter, more quality manner,” Kemp says of her 2023 season.
“I went to most tournaments on Tuesday and just enjoyed those few extra days at home in Orlando.
“The other side is, in my personal life I’m pretty happy. So I think I just did a good job of taking care of my mental health. Not that I’ve struggled much in that area, but just being more aware of, OK, I don’t need to get there on Sunday night and grind early on Monday morning. I can do the things that that make me mentally happy and spend a couple of extra days at home, get there on Tuesday. Just not putting too much pressure on myself, knowing that I had a good practice session and the game was in good shape – and just doing a better job off the golf course, I think, bled into the season.”
Feeling comfortable in her own skin counted for plenty for Kemp last year, and should again in 2024.
“I wish I actually knew what I know now back in my 20s. I just feel like I’m a bit emotionally smarter.”
Kemp fell into a trap that snares plenty of pros during their first year or two on tour: the mindset that they must play every week. It’s an easy assumption to make, however seasoned pros know what is loosely termed on tour as ‘the 80/20 rule’, which says that you make 80 percent of your prizemoney from just 20 percent of the events you contest.
“I always felt like I had to play every single week,” Kemp says of her early days on tour. “It felt like I was missing out if I didn’t play a week. Maybe six or seven years ago, I think I played 10 in a row. That’s madness.
“Whereas now I’m uncomfortable with missing events. If I know that if I’m not thrilled about the area or the course, then I don’t have such a hard time missing events. Now I’m just much better at that. I usually play three in a row then take a week off.
“The older I get, I wish I could have done that earlier, but it seemed to work [last] year.”
You can also attribute Kemp’s career uplift – she’d never previously finished higher than 63rd on the LPGA moneylist – to the energy that comes from the growing number of her talented countrywomen flocking to the circuit. That was evident last May at the International Crown teams event in San Francisco, where Kemp joined Minjee Lee, Hannah Green and Steph Kyriacou in disposing of every other nation they faced except for the white-hot Thai quartet in the final.
More than just their fine play, what was obvious that week at TPC Harding Park was the camaraderie between the four. Kemp, who came into the event ranked 174th in the world and only just edged Grace Kim for the final spot in the Aussie side, is at least a decade older than the other three. Yet they oozed chemistry.
“Yeah, we’re really funny,” Kemp laughs. “I’m biased, but the Aussies are a great bunch of the tour.
“We all get along really well. And we’re all really good at giving each other s–t, which is nice. We had an awesome week at International Crown. We tried practising all together. Steph is the most annoying – she’s taken money off me throughout the year. I don’t care if I lose to Minjee or Hannah, but there’s something about losing to Steph that really bothers me!
“It’s fun having them out there and, yeah, they definitely keep me on my toes. They don’t make me feel old; they make me feel like I’m back in my 20s, which is nice.”
The now-38-year-old also has one clear goal in mind starting the new season: to finally win on golf’s premier women’s circuit.
“That’s the only thing I’m probably still playing for,” Kemp says. “I still love playing, I still love competing and I’ve got plenty of motivation, but it is also that I just want to win once [on the LPGA Tour]. I don’t have any aspirations to be world No.1 or anything like that. I just want to say that I’ve won a tour event – I think that’d be so cool.
“So that’s the plan. I just want to keep playing until I can say that I’ve won one. A big one would be nice – a major would be awesome – but having that on the résumé, that’s the plan, that’s the motivation, that’s the goal. I am still pretty hungry for it.”