Melissa Eaton hopes that a return to her native Port Shepstone will kick her Chase to the Investec Cup for Ladies season into high gear as the headlines the field at the R250 000 SA Women’s Open alongside two-time champion Lee-Anne Pace this week.
The 32-year-old Eaton narrowly missed out on a maiden Sunshine Ladies Tour victory when she lost the season-opening SuperSport Ladies Challenge by one shot to Kim Williams.
She caught fire with five birdies on the back nine at Huddle Park and early show of form sees Eaton eager to start the 54-hole championship, sponsored by the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality, at San Lameer Country Club on Thursday.
‘I maybe should have won here in KwaZulu-Natal in the past, but let’s go out there and see what happens,’ said Eaton. ‘So much has changed in the last three months and I definitely didn’t expect to start the Sunshine Ladies Tour with a bang. Sometimes when you’re not expecting to win you can go out and turn it around.’
Eaton split her time between the Ladies European Tour and the Sunshine Ladies Tour from 2013, but when her money ran out, she change gears and joined Parkview Golf Club as the assistant golf director alongside golf director James Searson in October 2016.
‘It is really expensive to support yourself in Europe without sponsorship, so when the Parkview offer came up, I didn’t hesitate,’ she said. ‘The chance to put some roots down, but still do what I love has been really rewarding. We manage every aspect on the golf side at the club, from corporate golf days right through to tee times and marshalling. I love my job, the new experiences and I get to do some coaching, too.’
The shift from the competitive circuit to full-time employment has impacted positively on Eaton’s attitude coming into the Sunshine Ladies Tour’s fourth season and she showed her class at Huddle Park and with a top 20 finish at the SA Women’s Masters.
‘I don’t have time to practice as much as I used to, but the change has done me the world of good,’ she said. ‘Last year I pushed myself really hard to make enough money to sustain myself on the Ladies European Tour and, at times, it was to my own detriment.
‘This year I have a job I love, a salary that gives me financial freedom and the whole of Parkview supporting me on the tour. To have the opportunity to play without Europe hanging like a sword over me is fantastic and it’s impacting positively on my game.
‘I am far more relaxed, I’m hitting the ball with more freedom and I’m having fun again. I didn’t have the time to prepare for the SA Women’s Masters, and I felt out of sorts all week, but still managed to finish inside the top 20. This week I’m really looking forward at giving San Lameer another go.
‘I’ve done well here in the past and love this course. The layout suits my game and I if the putter warms up, I think I can go nice and low. I’m rested and ready and rearing to go.’
The only drawback is that Eaton will not have her twin sister Nicola (Gutzeit), by her side.
‘Nicola and I have played every SA Women’s Open since the championship returned to the schedule five years ago, but her baby boy is keeping her way too busy this year,’ Eaton said. ‘She’ll be thinking of me, though, and the rest of the clan will be out here shouting their support.
‘I’ve always put too much pressure on myself and I’ve never put three great rounds together here at San Lameer, but I’m taking this new attitude out there, and who knows, anything is possible.’
Eaton can expect stiff opposition from South Africa’s top golf export Pace, hunting a record first hat-trick in the national championship.
Other in-form players to watch include the newly-crowned SA Women’s Masters champion Carrie Park, who placed third in last year’s event, England’s Kiran Matharu, who tied for third in the SuperSport Ladies Challenge and Ashleigh Buhai (nee Simon), who shared second Matharu in the her first start at the SA Women’s Masters.
Last year’s leading amateur Lejan Lewthwaite will also be looking for her first pro victory at the course where she took second in 2016.
Entrance to the SA Women’s Open is free.