Port-rush for success

Matt Cooper previews this week’s British Ladies Amateur Championship, which has had some fine winners in recent years.

Want to glimpse the future of the ladies game? Then look no further than this week’s Ladies British Amateur Championship.
Royal Portrush GC is the venue and a superb one at that – it is the only course outside Scotland and England to have hosted an Open Championship and it also has Graeme McDowell’s favourite hole in all of Irish golf (“Portush’s 19th,” according to a recent Twitter Q and A session).
The field is strong, having drawn high quality performers from across the world, and all of the competitors will be aware that the list of recent champions and finalists includes players who didn’t waste much time making a name for themselves in the professional ranks.
Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist twice finished runner-up (in 2006 and 2007) and finally claimed the title at the third time of asking in 2008. Just 12 months later she was celebrating victory in the LPGA Championship and a few weeks after that she made a fine Solheim Cup debut.
The player Nordqvist defeated in that 2008 final was her compatriot Caroline Hedwall whose rookie year of professional golf has exploded into action in the last two weeks.
She won the New South Wales Open in February, but since then had struggled with her putting. When she rediscovered her touch on the greens the results were nothing short of sensational: she won a maiden LET title in Slovakia two weeks ago, won the PowerPlay: Ignition event (televised worldwide) at Celtic Manor the very next day (beating the like of McDowell and Ian Poulter) and then finished runner-up in the Deloittes Dutch Open just eight days after her win in Slovakia.
Swedes are not alone in having raided the Amateur in recent years – so, too, have the Spanish. Last year’s LPGA Rookie of the Year Aza Munoz won in 2009, her close friend Belen Mozo did so in 2006 and the yet-to-turn-pro-but-highly-rated Carlota Ciganda claimed the title in 2007.
Of those seeking to emulate the success of those players, five are inside the top ten of the R & A’s world rankings. They are the New Zealand pair of Lydia Ko and Cecilia Cho (first and second), the South African duo Bertine Strauss (fifth) and Iliska Verwey (ninth), and Germany’s Sophia Popov (seventh).
Ko starts favourite and will attract plenty of interest. A precocious 14-year-old she is, according to reports from New Zealand, already being courted by IMG and their interest is not difficult to understand.
She finished seventh in last year’s LET-sanctioned New Zealand Open (won by Laura Davies) and fourth in the same event earlier this year. She also came mighty close to winning the New South Wales Open that Hedwall ultimately won (and which featured Davies and a number of other big names prepping ahead of the Australian Open).
Also ranked inside the world’s top 20 are Spain’s Marta Silva (11th) and the top-ranked Briton in the field, 15-year-old Charley Hull (16th) from Woburn GC.
The Irish are well represented by their top ranked player Leona Maguire (13th), her twin sister Lisa (31st), local girl Stephanie Meadow (15th ) and GB&I’s top performer in the 2010 Curtis Cup Danielle McVeigh.
The British challenge is headed by England’s Kelly Tidy and the 2010 champion has adopted a smart approach this time around. “I’m not going to Ireland to defend my title,” she says. “But to try and win it again.” She’s joined by her England team-mate Holly Clyburn and Wales’ Amy Boulden, who was ranked fourth individually in the 2010 World Team Championship.
The qualifying strokeplay stages take place 7-8 June, with the matchplay rounds 9-11 June.
Matt Cooper
Follow Matt on Twitter – @MattCooperGolf