She has never been one for what you might call obvious displays of emotion – her on-course demeanour is perhaps best described as “stoic” – but 2013 has at least the potential to get Scotland’s leading female golfer more than a little excited.
For one thing, the Women’s British Open that Catriona Matthew won at Royal Lytham back in 2009 is headed to the Old Course at St Andrews. And for another, there is the very real prospect of a seventh appearance for Europe in the Solheim Cup. Throw in continental Europe’s first major championship, September’s Evian Masters, and the 43-year-old from North Berwick has much to look forward to.
Still, for all the obvious attractions of a second Open win on home soil, one gets the feeling that it’s the Solheim matches that are doing most to get Matthew’s competitive juices flowing. With a record of 12 wins, seven losses and six halved matches in the biennial contest with the Americans, the former Scottish and British Amateur champion has long had a penchant for the psychological and physical warfare known as match play. Ask Paula Creamer. Unbeaten in her previous Solheim singles, the so-called “Pink Panther” was left red-faced and no doubt black affronted by a 6&5 pounding from Matthew two years ago in Ireland.
“I’ve always enjoyed match play and the team aspect of the Solheim Cup,” confirms Matthew, who will surely go on to skipper Europe when her playing days are over. “It takes me back to my amateur days in many ways. Off the course it’s just a lot of fun and not just another week on tour. And on the course, I’ve always relished the prospect of playing others head-to-head. It makes a nice change from playing the course every week.
“As one of the more experienced members of the team I’ve always tried to make myself available to answer any questions the younger players might have. And, in the last couple of matches, I’ve played with rookies like Sandra Gal, Diana Luna and Azahara Munoz. It’s hard to explain to them how different the Solheim Cup is, though. They all want to know what it is like on the first tee but, until they are standing on there feeling it, they won’t really know. It’s impossible to put into words really.
“The event has grown hugely since I made my debut back in 1998. The crowds are bigger. It gets more and more media attention. And it hasn’t hurt that we have won now and then. If they were winning every time, the atmosphere wouldn’t be as good I’m sure.”
And no, Matthew certainly hasn’t forgotten the no-doubt enormously satisfying thrashing she administered to the aforementioned and eventually tearful Creamer.
“I recall that the weather wasn’t great, which helped us, I think,” continues Matthew. “I was off first in the singles, which was a great honour, especially as we were slightly behind and needed a fast start if we were to win the trophy. I certainly felt like I had to win. Not just for myself, but for the boost that would give those coming along behind.
“I remember standing on the first tee. There was a strong wind that made it difficult to carry the fairway bunker. But I stood up and hit one of the best drives of my life, miles over the bunker and well past Paula. That seemed to set the tone for the match. I think she noticed anyway.”
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of that match – that virtually every putt had at least a chance to go in – is something Matthew would like to see more of in her week-to-week play. Never the strongest on the greens, the aim is to make “one more 15-20 footer per round”, a feat that would surely bring more victories for the woman currently ranked No.13 in the world.
“I do find that I am more aggressive on the greens in match play,” she says. “Not worrying about the numbers on the cards makes it easier to go for more. I do get slightly tentative at times in stroke play, so that helps me more than most. In fact, that is something I have been working on over the last 18 months or so, especially in that vital 15-20 foot range. I know myself that I don’t hole enough of those.
“Even holing one more putt per round from that distance would make a huge difference to my average finish. Four strokes per tournament is a lot at the top level. Everyone always feels like they could hole more putts but I know I could, certainly relative to those I am playing against. That’s one reason I now have an artificial practice green in my back garden. It has already helped my feel at this stage of the year. It’s hard to find fast greens in a Scottish winter.”
To that end, Matthew has already swapped North Berwick for Abu Dhabi, working for a week with her coach Kevin Craggs.
“The reason for my trip to the Middle East was just to brush up on my basics, grip, posture and alignment,” she explains.
“They are so important, no matter what level of player you are. My posture can get a bit sloppy and I tend to aim a bit right of target if I don’t keep an eye on that aspect of my set up.
“I have also been working on keeping my right elbow a bit closer to my body on my backswing.
“I like to have a drill to work on when I’m on the range. Once I get comfortable with that, it should all be about focusing on rhythm and tempo out on the course.”
Next week, the new season begins for Matthew in far-away Canberra at the Australian Women’s Open. But one suspects her attention is already wandering to the first week of August.
“I’m so looking forward to the Women’s Open,” she admits. “It’s great that the championship goes to such historic venues and the overseas players love coming here to play. This year is even more special, of course. I love St Andrews and have always enjoyed the Old Course. It’s such a great place to be. I had a slight chance the last time until maybe halfway through the third round. It would be a fantastic place to win, the ultimate really.
“Perhaps the best thing, however, is that we will play the course as it is supposed to be played, in terms of the distances and the clubs we will be hitting into the greens. Which is not to say that new technology hasn’t made a difference in the women’s game. We all hit the ball longer off the tee, even if we haven’t gained as much as the men. They are stronger and can compress the ball more. Having said that, at St Andrews much depends on the weather. That will dictate the level of scoring.”
All in all then, Matthew is not short of targets: Solheim Cup; another major victory. And, for what would be the first time in her career, “a place in the top-ten”.
Don’t bet against her achieving all three. Few are more determined. Just ask Paula.