It is considered the toughest test in golf: the Women’s British Open, writes LALI STANDER in Compleat Golfer.
It’s where names and careers are made and heroes emerge from the unlikeliest of places. Like Stacy Lewis, the winner in 2013, and this year’s defending champion, Ariya Jutanugarn.
The previous time Lewis had been at St Andrews was in 2008 for the Curtis Cup, where she went 5-0 to lead the American team to victory, but her visit four years ago was even sweeter. The American finished Sunday with an even- par 72 to lift the Women’s British Open trophy by two shots over Koreans Na Yeon Choi and Hee Young Park.
Not only did she end a record streak of 10 straight Majors won by Asian players, but she became only the second American to reach the No 1 spot since the inception of the Rolex rankings in 2006.
Her ascension raised huge awareness of the sport in the United States and abroad, inspiring the likes of rising stars Lydia Ko from New Zealand, Australia’s Minjee Lee and Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn.
The Thai golfer had an illustrious amateur career that included a victory at the US Girls Junior Championship in 2011. In 2016, she dominated the women’s circuit with five victories between May and August, including her first Major, at Woburn.
Barely a year later, she dethroned Ko for the No 1 spot in the world.
At 21 years, six months and 20 days old, the previously unheralded Jutanugarn not only became the second-youngest player in LPGA Tour history, but the third-youngest player, male or female, to reach the No 1 spot in the history of professional golf, and the first golfer from Thailand – male or female – to climb to the top of the ladder in the professional game.
‘Winning at Woburn last year was amazing and I am proud going to Kingsbarns as the defending champion,’ said Jutanugarn.
‘When I watched Stacy win at St Andrews, I knew where I wanted to go with my golf. It was a dream come true to win the Women’s British Open. Now I am going to defend a title for the first time and I hope I do a good job.’
Charley Hull had an equally storied amateur career and enjoyed her breakthrough on the LPGA Tour, at the CME Group Tour Championship, at the end of 2016.
The darling of England is equally keen to join the group of 20-somethings with Major silverware to their name.
‘I had a sneak peek at Kingsbarns and the course is spectacular,’ said Hull. ‘From what I have seen, I think it is going be a great challenge and a true test. Winning on the LPGA Tour at the end of last year was a huge confidence booster and hopefully I can keep the trophy on British soil.’
The bookmakers are already favouring Lewis, So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, Na Yeon Choi, Shanshan Feng and Ladies European Tour winners Holly Clyburn, Beth Allen, Aditi Ashok and Gwladys Nocera. South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai, a keen fan of the third Major, believes she also has a chance.
Straight after her victory at the Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies, the six-time Sunshine Ladies Tour champion took her winning form to the United States, where she has steadily been climbing the rankings in her campaign to regain a full LPGA Tour card.
Although Buhai has cashed cheques in only five of her 13 starts this season, a career-best second place at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic in July bodes well.
‘I’m definitely hitting the kind of form I had when I was winning in Europe,’ said Buhai, who won the qualifier at Prestwick in June to also qualify for the US Women’s Open.
‘I am striking the ball well and my short game is strong,’ Ashleigh Buhai believes.
‘One of my goals this season was to qualify for all the Majors, but I missed the boat with the ANA Inspiration. The tie for 36th at the Women’s PGA Championship was not only my best Major performance, but I took a lot of confidence into the event after winning my US Women’s Open qualifier. It’s another opportunity to keep building.
‘We all dream of winning Majors, but ever since I played the Women’s British Open as an amateur, at Birkdale in 2006, it’s been really special to me. It’s the Major I would most like to win. I love the history and status around this championship, and the fact that we play courses that test every shot in the bag.
‘I’m striking the ball well and my short game is strong. If I can put together four good rounds at Kingsbarns, you never know; I might have a chance.’
– This article first appeared in the August issue of Compleat Golfer