Golf Australia

PREVIEW: Ko again the one to beat

Lydia Ko comes to The Grange Golf Club in 2016 as world number one, defending champion of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and, most tellingly, the player every other player in the field needs to get past in order to hold the trophy. And she’s only 18 years old.

In her short time in the professional ranks, Ko has not only set record after record and raised the bar for everyone else, she has helped re- define women’s golf.

This year, an unprecedented number of young golfers arrive with a genuine chance of winning, where previously they might have mainly sought experience. The brilliant New Zealander has shown them that anything is possible.

Ko was one of four teenage winners in 2015 on the LPGA Tour and one of another four on the Ladies European Tour. Of these seven teenagers, six will be on show this week – Ko, Minjee Lee, Brooke Henderson, Xi Yu Lin, Emily Kristene Pedersen and Su Oh.

Australia’s Minjee Lee had a great debut LPGA season, rewarded by finishing third on the Rolex Rookie of the Year standings in one of the most talented rookie groups ever seen. Her first win, at the Kingsmill

Championship, was one of seven top- 10s that saw her pass Karrie Webb as Australia’s highest ranked player. She, along with Oh, will take Australian hopes into the future.

What a remarkable golfer Brooke Henderson is. Too young to join the LPGA Tour at the start of 2015, Henderson set about earning her way in, playing through Monday qualifiers and on sponsor exemptions. She was granted a Symetra Tour card after winning that tour’s Four Winds International and then repeated the effort, gaining her LPGA Tour card after winning the Cambia Portland Classic by eight shots over a quality field.

Henderson’s win made her the third youngest LPGA winner in history behind Ko and Lexi Thompson. and the first Canadian winner since Lorie Kane in 2001. If Lee is flying the flag for Australia, then Henderson has certainly brought the Canadians to their feet.

England’s Charley Hull cemented herself as one of the game’s young stars. At 19 she is almost a veteran, having

turned professional at just 16. But she was a star well before that, winning the British Ladies National Championship at an astonishing nine years of age before going on to some spectacular results in her early seasons on the LET.

There is a magic about Hull, something so exciting about her game and its natural gung-ho style, that captivates spectators. Look out Adelaide. This girl doesn’t just promise, she can deliver.

Xi Yu Lin played a lot of sports in her homeland China until Shanshan Feng’s father, who worked at China’s Institute of Sport, suggested she try golf. It was all go from there. Lin qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open at 15, the year she turned professional. She won two events on the China LPGA Tour before joining the LET in 2013 and

in 2014 won the Sanyo Ladies Open, a title she successfully defended in 2015. Still just 19, this girl has serious game.

Of course it’s not just the teenagers; the 20-somethings are in on the action too.

South Korean Ha Na Jang, 23, is rapidly developing something of a cult following with an engaging smile which seems ever-present and a trademark fist pump, some highlights of which featured in an LPGA fan video. When it comes to golf, she is a powerhouse. In 2015 she shot a career-low 65 three times, held a share of the 54-hole lead three times and had four runner-up finishes in eight top-10s for her rookie season. That’s some golf. No wonder there were so many fist pumps.

The “Yani Effect” can be seen in the number of emerging Taiwanese golfers, with a couple of promising professionals already out there and a host of amateurs learning their craft in Australia this summer.

 Ssu-Chia Cheng is one of those talented

professionals. In 2014, as a 17-year-old amateur, she claimed the Xiamen International Ladies Open,

co-sanctioned with CLPGA, on her LET debut. It was her fourth  professional win, having already picked up three titles on the Taiwan LPGA Tour. In her rookie 2015 year on the LET, she had three top-10s including being runner-up at the Xiamen Open in a spirited title defence.

Two other Taiwanese to watch closely are Min Lee, 20, who is coached by Charlotta Sorenstam, and Wei-Ling Hsu, 21.

The young Danes are here too. Emily Kristene Pedersen, 19, posted three top-10s in 12 starts on the LET in 2015, including a win at the Hero Women’s Indian Open in October, one month after the Ladies Open de France where she led by four shots early on the back back nine on Sunday before losing in a playoff. Pedersen was named Rookie of the Year after a close tussle with another Dane, 20-year-old Nanna Koerstz Madsen.

Yet another of the fine South Koreans, Q Baek is 20 and a winner of the 2014 LPGA Hana Bank

Championship at her first LPGA start – defeating major winners In Gee Chun and Brittany Lincicome on the first playoff hole. In her first LPGA season last year, Baek made a wonderful start to her career, finishing eighth in Rookie of the Year, again showing the depth of that group, and is a player on the rise.

All 10 of the Symetra Tour graduates, along with many of the Q-School graduates from both the LPGA Tour and LET are in the field. Yes, the future of golf is here in Adelaide this week.

This championship has a history of kick-starting careers. And this city has been part of that. The last time this event was here, in 1994 at Royal Adelaide, a promising youngster won her first professional event by claiming the Patricia Bridges Bowl. Her name – Annika Sorenstam.

Another  talented  player who made her professional debut that week was Webb, whose 22-year tenure in the

game can make it possible to forget that she was a wunderkind herself. Yet here she is, at 41, still a champion player with a champion’s heart and a proud Aussie’s resolve

to represent her country in this year’s  Olympic Games. To those who have watched and admired her throughout her brilliant career, she is already gold.

Then there’s Jiyai Shin, herself a teenage whiz not so long ago, winner

of this championship in 2013 and former world number one, who returns to Australian soil this year. Now based in Japan to be closer to family, Shin is a prolific winner on the Japan LPGA Tour and will be a formidable challenger to all.

The ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open always raises interesting questions and this year is no exception.

Will the phenom world number one prevail once more? Will Australia’s greatest ever golfer take out her sixth? Will her heir apparent or another Aussie in the wings claim their first? Will it be an established star or one in the making?

The anticipation is always fun. But the time for wondering is over. It’s time now to watch these outstanding players do their thing. Let’s play.

22 August 2016
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Golf Australia