Little golfers and Lytham are clearly compatible. Seventeen years after 5ft 3in Ian Woosnam shared the lead at the Lancashire venue heading into the final round of the Open Championship, another of the game’s tiny packages is going along nicely in the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
By sheer coincidence, Pornanong Phatlum also stands at exactly the same height as Woosnam. His title bid, of course, was undone when it was discovered on the second tee on the Sunday that a caddie blunder had left him breaking the rules by having one more than the 14 permitted clubs in his bag.
Woosnam’s mood thereafter in that event was a complete contrast to how Phatlum, a 22-year-old from Thailand, felt after a brace of bogey-free 67s catapulted her into the lead on 10-under-par at the halfway stage in this week’s £2.9 million event. Based on the fact she carded a splendid 65 in the second round of the previous week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open at Gullane before finishing joint-28th behind compatriot Ariya Jutanugarn, Phatlum’s performance here is not a complete surprise.
It is, though, when you take into account the fact she’d missed the cut six times in seven previous appearances in this event, the odd one out being when she finished joint-27th across the Ribble Estuary at Royal Birkdale in 2014. “Wow,” said Phatlum of finding herself at the top of the leaderboard in the fourth women’s major of the season, sitting a shot ahead of overnight leader Minjee Lee from Australia, England’s Georgia Hall and Mamiko Higa of Japan.
“I didn’t have good times on links courses in the past, but now I have more experience and I also have more confidence in my swing. I just keep telling myself now, ‘I have the game to play on a links course’.”
Phatlum has 16 professional wins to her name, including the Dubai Ladies Masters in 2014. She’s recorded two top-ten finishes on the LPGA Tour this season but trying to stay out in front in this event will easily be the biggest challenge of her career. “I feel very happy right now,” she added. “I’m very confident in my game this week.”
Jutanugarn became the first Thai player, male or female, to win a major when she landed this title at Woburn two years ago. She became world No 1 for a second time with her win at Gullane last Sunday and has been backed up by her sister Moriya in flying the Thai flag admirably on the LPGA circuit in recent years. “Ariya and Moriya inspire all the Thai golfers a lot,” admitted Phatlum. “We know that we can also win tournaments.”
On a day when it was announced that the event is set to be staged for the first time at Royal Troon in 2020 after a return to Woburn next year, Catriona Matthew’s Lytham love affair continued as the winner here nine years ago conjured up some more memorable moments at this venue. The 48-year-old holed out twice over the closing stretch, chipping in for an eagle at the par-5 14th before raising the biggest roar of the day in the stands around the 18th by holing from a greenside bunker for a birdie. The late heroics gave Matthew a second-round 70 for a three-under-par total to sit in the top 20.
“That was nice – it makes a difference to your score,” said the North Berwick woman of her grandstand finish. “The chip at the 15th, to be fair, was a bit strong but it hit the middle of the pin and dropped in. You’ve got to take your breaks in this game. The bunker shot at the last was always going to be close, but it was a bonus that it went in. It’s always nice when you raise a roar like that at the 18th hole.”
Lee, runner-up to Jutanugarn at Gullane, was flying out in front until she dropped three shots in the final three holes, the 22-year-old’s stutter coming just as Hall was stepping up her bid to become just the third British player after Karen Stupples (2004) and Matthew to win this event as a major.
Hall, who finished joint-third at Kingsbarns 12 months ago, has matched Phatlum in being bogey-free so far, backing up her an opening 67 with an equally impressive 68 on a day when two of her compatriots, top-ranked British player Charley Hull and former world No 1 Laura Davies, made surprising early exits.
“No, never,” replied Hall, a 22-year-old from Bournemouth, to being asked if she’d negotiated 36 holes previously without a blemish on her card. “One round and four or five holes is the best I’ve managed before, so I’m happy not to have had a bogey here so far.”
On what lies ahead here, she added: “I was in a similar position last year, so I know what it feels like. So I’m still pretty calm and not really feeling much at the moment, which is good. I don’t want to feel anything. So I’m just enjoying it, and hopefully I can play well tomorrow.”
As was the case on the Fife coast a year ago, Hall’s dad, Wayne, is on her bag this week. “The experience from last year helped hugely,” he said. “Coming third and then playing in her first Solheim Cup as well got her used to crowds and to the expectation of being in the spotlight, of all the cameras that come rushing when you’re doing well. She’s learnt to accept that. People expect her to do well now on her past results, but she is still learning, still very young. But she is coping very well with it and I am sure she will on the weekend.”