CATRIONA Matthew has claimed the majority of the players in the field for the Ricoh Women’s British Open starting today in St Andrews will have been blissfully unaware of the Old Course changes that provoked a stooshie last winter.
Five-times Open champion Peter Thomson and Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter led a storm of protest over the alterations, which included the addition of new bunkers at the second, the 11th green being flattened out a bit and the Road Hole bunker being widened.
Thomson said it was “like a bad dream” while Poulter described the changes as “insane” and likened the work to a moustache being drawn on the Mona Lisa. “Let’s put a bridge and a windmill over the Valley of Sin as well,” he added, tongue in cheek.
Now bedded in, the changes are being put to the test for the first time in a professional event this week and, according to the player who has teed up on the Old Course more than anyone else in the star-studded field, they are barely noticeable.
“Overall, I think the changes are very subtle,” said Matthew, a two-time winner of the St Rule Trophy over the hallowed fairways as an amateur before tying for seventh behind Lorena Ochoa when the British Women’s Open became the first ladies’ professional event to be played on the Old Course in 2007.
“The bunkers at the second, which I probably wouldn’t have realised were there if I hadn’t come up to play a month ago, make the second shot a little harder while I also don’t think you’d notice the change at 11 unless you’d played the course a lot.
“Seventeen is probably the one I would have noticed due to the mounding to the left of the Road Hole bunker. But it probably just takes out the option of going left if the pin is on the back left because you never know what kind of kick you’ll get.
“They’re all so subtle and, if you look back to what, 150 years ago, the course has changed a bit over the years, so I think these changes are just a natural progression.”
A natural progression in terms of form would see South Korea’s Inbee Park, the world No 1, earn a place in the record books this weekend as the first player, male or female, to win four majors in the same season.
With no less than 22 other past major winners and 19 of the world’s top 20 in the field, however, it’s by no means a one-horse race, with Matthew, the 2009 champion, among those who could well deliver the rain on Park’s parade.
A bit like Paul Lawrie in the men’s game, Matthew is enjoying a second wind, though, in fairness, it might be unfair to suggest her form has ever dipped. She is tenth in the world, pushed Park in a play-off in one of her major wins earlier in the year and has sewn up a seventh appearance in the Solheim Cup next month.
“I feel as though I’m probably hitting it as well and swinging it as well as I have ever done, so hopefully I can do that the next few days,” said the 43-year-old North Berwick woman, who never ceases to amaze her coach, Kevin Craggs, with her appetite to keep improving. Matthew, though, says that’s essential in the modern-day women’s game.
“This is my 19th year on Tour and the depth on both the LET and LPGA has increased dramatically from when I first started,” she added. “Then, there were maybe 30 people each week who could win and now I would say that just about everyone who is teeing up has a chance of winning. If you don’t keep improving, you’re going to be off the Tour, so that spurs you on.”
With the backing of a home crowd and her knowledge of the course – “I’ve probably played 30-40 rounds here” – Matthew is hoping Park’s bid to create history will bring out the best in her as well, as was the case when the Scot joined the major club with her three-shot win at Lytham four years ago.
“For anyone to have a chance of winning four majors in a row is amazing and, if Inbee won here, it would be an amazing story for both her and women’s golf. It would be fantastic, but we are going to be out there trying to stop her,” she stressed.
“For me to win in Scotland, at St Andrews and to beat Inbee would be a big deal. When I won the British the last time, I just had Sophie, my second child. That was quite a big deal, so maybe I need the big occasion to win ... but I think I’ll stop at two children!”
In an event that features all the major champions from the last six years with the exception of Ochoa, who has retired, Park’s compatriot, Jiyai Shin, defends the title, which she claimed for a second time at Royal Liverpool last year after also winning at Sunningdale in 2008.
“I have good memories and good confidence from this tournament,” admitted the 25-year-old, who will rely on accuracy rather than strength this week. “I’m not a long hitter and, at the 17th yesterday, I hit a really good driver then a 5-wood and I just made the green,” she added in illustrating her confidence hitting longer clubs than some of her rivals into the big Old Course greens.
On the back of slow play being a major issue six years ago, players have been allocated four hours and 30 minutes to get round this week. “We think that’s achievable,” said LGU tournament director Susan Simpson. “In 2007, no women’s championship golf had been played on the links before and no-one knew what to expect. The vast majority of players hadn’t played it competitively, and weren’t really accustomed to the double fairways and greens and the protocol involved, and there was some confusion. We’re all a little wiser this time.”
Turnberry chosen as 2015 host
TURNBERRY’S selection as the 2015 host for the Ricoh Women’s British Open could point to the Scottish Open heading to a venue in the east that year.
With a return to Castle Stuart likely in 2016, the 2015 and 2017 slots are up for grabs as the event, under its partnership between Aberdeen Asset Management and the Scottish Government, is moved around the country. But it would probably be unfeasible for two big tournaments to be staged in the same part of the country in the space of four weeks, meaning a visit to the west is more likely in 2017.
As for the Women’s British Open, it will be the second time it has been staged at Turnberry, where Australian Karrie Webb claimed victory in 2002.
“We are delighted to be returning to Turnberry which has welcomed the championship back with great enthusiasm,” said Shona Malcolm, the LGU’s CEO. “This decision continues the championship committee’s commitment to ensuring the world’s best women players showcase their talents on the world’s best golf courses.
“We are grateful to EventScotland for its continued support and to South Ayrshire Council for recognising the value to business and tourism in hosting a championship of this quality.”