A world of opportunity awaits Australia’s leading women golfers as a tantalising showdown awaits.
By STEVE KEIPERT
If ever anyone needed an illustration of the importance of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, it comes in the form of Hannah Green.
The West Australian arrived at Adelaide’s Kooyonga Golf Club last February for just her second event as an LPGA member. A tie for 11th on her tour debut in the Bahamas three weeks earlier was a healthy start before Green ramped it up a notch at home. Weekend rounds of 66-69 at Kooyonga propelled the then-21-year-old into third place, earning her $US86,000 and a whole lot of comfort for the rest of the season. Green endured her ups and downs on tour in 2018, but it was that pivotal early result on home soil that provided the security blanket craved by any first-timer on tour.
“It set up the rest of my year, really,” Green reflects. “I was really happy with how I performed in the Bahamas at my first event but then to perform like that in front of a home crowd really helped me feel like I belonged out there. I did feel like that once I graduated through Symetra, but to have another result to back that up obviously gives you a lot of confidence. Every year that I’ve played the Australian Open I’ve gotten bit-by-bit better, so who knows what could happen this year.”
Green’s experiences on tour in 2018 are instructive for young Australian golfers looking to walk in her LPGA footsteps. Despite having the benefit of a season on the secondary Symetra Tour to acclimatise to America and learn the off-course elements of life on tour, Green says she still had lessons to learn on the main circuit. For instance, many of the Symetra events are close enough to allow players to move from event to event via road, while the LPGA events require far more flying.
“Even though I had a lot of long drives it was a little bit easier,” Green says of her time on the Symetra Tour. “It’s quite hard taking three suitcases to an airport.
“I’m going to try to plan my schedule a little bit better this year. I don’t really feel obliged to play as many events as I did last year. I didn’t really plot my schedule very well. I found that I was playing a lot of events in a row and then I had nearly five or six weeks off at the end of the year, so I think that is what I have learnt overall now that I look back on the year. Fortunately the new schedule matches up better for me to be able to do that, which is nice.”
Beginning the new LPGA season at home can provide Green and her peers with a healthy chance to get in front of their northern hemisphere brethren, who will need to travel and adjust to the changes in time and season. Green will contest the Vic Open, which from 2019 becomes an LPGA-sanctioned stop, before heading to Adelaide from February 14-17. Like it is for the entire home contingent, the national championship is close to her heart.
“The Aussie Open is obviously the tournament every Australian wants to win and have on their CV, but it’s definitely one of the most important tournaments on my schedule – I’d rank it as high as a Major – so I’d love to win an Australian Open,” she said.
Green also has a liking for – and a familiarity with – Grange’s West course.
“That’s the course in Adelaide that I’ve played the most. I played an Astor Trophy there, which is a matchplay format with lots of rounds in a short amount of time. So I actually feel really comfortable out there. I have a host family on-course – they live by the 15th green – so there’s really good memories and a good vibe for me.”
MINJEE vs ARIYA
Anyone familiar with Adelaide’s two AFL sides will know the city is a recurring host of the ‘Showdown’ between the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide Power. The annual or biannual clashes draw fans and divide followers based on their respective loyalties.
February isn’t ever a ‘Showdown’ month, which will suit Minjee Lee and Ariya Jutanugarn just fine. Instead, the leading Australian golfer – male or female, based on the current world rankings – and the reigning world No.1 are the headline acts of this year’s championship. The pair is hardly the only marquee inclusion in the field, but it’s a natural link to draw between the home nation’s leading light and the premier player on the planet.
Last year was a season of extraordinary dominance for the Thai golfer, capturing three tournaments, including the US Women’s Open, and almost every LPGA accolade available to her. Conversely, consistency was the hallmark of Lee’s 2018, with just the one LPGA title (she also won the Vic Open) but a swag of top-10 finishes. The pair finished the season 1-2 on the moneylist. Yet Lee’s dearth of trophies for one so gifted is about the only criticism one can level at the West Australian.
“I’ve come close a couple of times. So hopefully in February I can take that next step,” Lee said in December when her position in the 2019 Women’s Australian Open field was confirmed. “It’s always a huge thrill to play in front of the home crowds and we have had enormous support here in Adelaide the past three years.”
Should Lee and Jutanugarn battle it out in Adelaide, it could set up an enthralling Karrie vs Annika-style duel that lasts the entire year – or longer.
When the 2016 Women’s Australian Open ventured back to Adelaide after a 22-year absence, the biggest winner other than champion Haru Nomura was the Grange Golf Club. The players lauded the West course’s design and set-up, a trend that has continued the past two years at Royal Adelaide and Kooyonga. Still, nothing goes untouched for very long in golf and organisers saw an opportunity to apply a few tweaks to Grange for the 2019 edition.
Trevor Herden, Golf Australia’s director of championships, says the primary change to the course set-up this year compared to three years ago is the third hole will play 30 metres longer to stretch it nearer to the 380-metre mark. In 2016, players were landing their drives over the significant hill in the fairway, so adding some length will bolster the challenge of that tee shot and that hole.
“We’ll retain the width of the golf course as it was designed,” Herden said, adding that the plan is to raise the rough closer to 50-55 millimetres, depending on what Adelaide’s summer weather allows. Aside from preparing for the South Australian capital’s often-notorious heat, the calibre of the Grange represents a relatively easy assignment for Herden and his fellow course set-up staff.
“It’s nice to return to a venue you’ve been to previously and that was universally praised,” Herden says.
With a stellar field and a majestic golf course, Grange Golf Club and Adelaide can expect high praise again this month.
Past Women’s Australian Open champions
Year Winner Score Venue Purse
2018 Jin-Young Ko (S. Korea) 274 Kooyonga $US1.3m
2017 Ha-Na Jang (S. Korea) 282 Royal Adelaide $US1.3m
2016 Haru Nomura (Jpn) 272 Grange (West) $US1.3m
2015 Lydia Ko (NZ) 283 Royal Melbourne $US1.2m
2014 Karrie Webb (Aus) 276 Victoria $US1.2m
2013 Jiyai Shin (S. Korea) 274 Royal Canberra $US1.2m
2012 Jessica Korda (USA) 289* Royal Melbourne $US1.1m
2011 Yani Tseng (Tai) 276 Commonwealth $600,000
2010 Yani Tseng (Tai) 283 Commonwealth $600,000
2009 Laura Davies (Eng) 285 Metropolitan $500,000
2008 Karrie Webb (Aus) 284* Kingston Heath $500,000
2007 Karrie Webb (Aus) 278 Royal Sydney $500,000
2005-2006: Not played
2004 Laura Davies (Eng) 283 Concord $550,000
2003 Mhairi McKay (Sco) 277 Terrey Hills $500,000
2002 Karrie Webb (Aus) 278* Yarra Yarra $500,000
2001 Sophie Gustafson (Swe) 276 Yarra Yarra $400,000
2000 Karrie Webb (Aus) 270 Yarra Yarra $350,000
1999: Not played
1998 Marnie McGuire (NZ) 280 Yarra Yarra $350,000
1997 Jane Crafter (Aus) 279 Yarra Yarra $350,000
1996 Catriona Matthew (Sco) 283 Yarra Yarra $300,000
1995 Liselotte Neumann (Swe) 283 Yarra Yarra $250,000
1994 Annika Sorenstam (Swe) 286 Royal Adelaide $200,000
1979-1993: Not played
1978 Debbie Austin (USA) 213 Manly $15,000
1977 Jan Stephenson (Aus) 145 Manly $15,000
1976 Donna Caponi-Young (USA) 206 Victoria $15,000
1975 JoAnne Carner (USA) 228 The Australian $15,000
1974 Chako Higuchi (Jpn) 219 Victoria $10,000
*Won in playoff