Catriona Matthew back in groove as Park falters

AS GOLF’S wonder woman showed she is human, after all, marvellous mum Catriona Matthew slipped seamlessy from beach fun with her two daughters back into work mode to sit close to the lead after the first round of the Ricoh Women’s British Open.

On a day when history-chasing Inbee Park stuttered to a 69 after a blistering start in St Andrews, Matthew, the 2009 winner, finished birdie-birdie for a four-under-par 68 as one of her playing partners, American Morgan Pressel, and 25-year-old Swedish qualifier Camilla Lennarth both took route 66 to set the pace. Pressel led outright until Lennarth birdied the 18th in the third-last group, the pair being chased by a seven-strong group consisting of American quartet Stacy Lewis, Nicole Castrale, Ryann O’Toole and Sydnee Michaels as well as Korean trio Na Yeon Choi, Mi-Jeong Jeon and Eun-Hee Ji.

The youngest women’s major winner after claiming the 2007 Kraft Nabisco title at 18, Pressel made her early title thrust after treating the Old Course with more respect than she did in this same event six years ago.

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“I hit driver everywhere and hoped it didn’t end up in a bunker whereas, now, I understand how penal those bunkers can be and how important it is to stay out of them,” confessed the 25-year-old, who has a strong St Andrews connection, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic.

She studied at St Andrews College and lives on the course at St Andrews Country Club, both in Boca Raton, Florida. “So I’m feeling right at home here,” joked Pressel, adding the warm afternoon conditions she’d enjoyed had also helped in that respect.

Bidding to secure a spot in the United States Solheim Cup side, to be finalised along with the European one at the conclusion of this event – the match takes place in Denver in a fortnight’s time – Pressel made the most of the wind switching following a rain shower just after lunch to come home in 32, four-under.

“After I played here the last time, I was pretty down on links golf and didn’t really look forward to coming to the British Open,” admitted the joint leader. “In fact, after shooting 77 in the first round at Birkdale the next year, I was ready to book my flight home. Then, the next day, I went out and shot 65 and I was kind of like, ‘you know, I can do this’. It gave me a better outlook for all the British Opens I’ve played since then and I’ve gotten better at managing my game and hitting shots other than just a stock draw as it just doesn’t work in this event.”

Teased by her playing partner for being “a crowd pleaser”, Matthew wore a smile as wide as the opening fairway after her grandstand 3-3 finish, which came minutes after Georgia Hall, the 17-year-old English amateur, also achieved the rare feat as she, too, signed for 68.

“Not often,” replied Matthew when asked how many times she’d birdied the Road Hole, playing as a par-4 on this occasion, unlike 2007. “I hit a punched 4-iron for my second that ran up to 25 feet past and holed a good putt,” she added of that welcome bonus, before earning another rousing cheer by knocking in an eight-footer from below the hole at the last.

“Overall, I’m pretty pleased,” admitted the 43-year-old North Berwick woman, who claimed this title at Royal Lytham just 11 weeks after the birth of her youngest daughter, Sophie, and has enjoyed spending time with her and six-year-old sister Katie in the build-up to this event.

“I’ve had two weeks at home, so I’ve played a fair bit of links golf at North Berwick and Archerfield in the evenings, the reason for that being that, due to the weather being so nice, the kids have had me on the beach all the time,” she commented.

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Reflecting the conditions – the wind factor was almost negligible while the course had also been softened up by the occasional morning shower – the day finished with more than 30 players separated by just three shots at the business end of the leaderboard, the logjam including title favourite Park.

Bidding to become the first player, male or female, to win four majors in the same season, Park’s magic putting wand let her down for once as she three-putted three times on the back nine, though she was adamant her rocky run had nothing to do with the weight of expectation on her shoulders.

“It felt like a roller-coaster today,” she admitted of an effort that was two better than defending champion Jiya Shin’s 71. “I played very good on the front nine but was then a little bit shaky on the back nine. I hit a couple of bad drives and they really shocked me. I lost my concentration. I’m a little bit disappointed, but, after being a little nervous this morning before I teed off, I’m glad I’ve got the first round under my belt.”

Like Park, Lewis and Paula Creamer – sitting alongside Matthew on 68 – were up with the larks as some of the big guns found themselves on the first tee before 7am. “I was up at 4.30 for probably the earliest tee time I’ve had,” said Lewis, shaping up as an Old Course specialist. On the back of winning all five of her matches in the 2008 Curtis Cup, the world No 2 bucked the normal trend here by making her score coming home, with a best-of-the-day 31 on the back nine. “You know it’s early when you get up in Scotland and it’s still dark,” added Creamer, who’d set her alarm for 4am.

Pleased with her opening salvo, Castrale, another player making a late Solheim Cup surge, laughed off any suggestion that Park had suffered a meltdown. “You don’t have to have a meltdown to make a double-bogey on this golf course,” she said of the Korean running up a 6 at the 16th. “So, meltdown? I don’t think so and I bet she’s not thinking she’s had one, either.”

Carly Booth, though, certainly has room for improvement. Failing to record a single birdie, the 21-year-old Comrie woman is sitting joint-last, alongside Spanish two-time LPGA Tour winner Beatrix Recari, in the 144-strong field after a disappointing 78.