AT FIRST glance, 2014 wasn’t exactly the best year of Catriona Matthew’s professional career.
While the 45-year-old North Berwick native remains Caledonia’s highest-ranked golfer – she is currently 28th in the world – one year ago she was as high as 11th. But given the fact this mother-of-two follows a limited schedule that demands she be away from home for no more than three weeks at a time, five top-11 finishes (two of them in major championships) and earnings in excess of $500,000 represents only a mildly unsatisfactory 12-month stint on the LPGA Tour.
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“I had a few good weeks,” shrugs Matthew, who will play her first event of 2015 in Australia next month. “But it was a little bit up and down. I feel like I played pretty solidly all year without my scoring reflecting that fact. I putted well only a few times, which was the biggest problem. Overall though, I was pleased with how I hit the ball. This year I just need to be more consistent through the bag.”
Indeed, Matthew will need to be just that if she is to stay competitive against a group of players who are increasingly younger, bigger and stronger than she. Although she has not touched a club since finishing T-27 in the LPGA Tour Championship at the end of November, the former Women’s British Open champion has been in the gym six days out of every seven.
“I’m not finding it harder to compete these days, but it is different,” she says. “The players work so much harder now than they did when I was first on tour. But I feel like I can still give them a run for their money. Maybe not every week, but my best game still feels good enough to win tournaments.
“The women’s game is going the same way as the men’s in that distance off the tee is becoming more and more important. Look at the size of them. There are so many players who are six feet tall. I’ve never been the longest, but I’m still in the top third on tour in driving distance. So that at least is not an issue.”
OK, so what does a woman in her mid-40s have to do to keep up in a sport where the level of play and the number of world-class exponents is on the increase every year?
“The ladies’ game has changed so much in my time as a professional,” continues Matthew, who left the amateur game in 1994. “The standard is so much higher, especially at the top level. But everyone on tour is better. When I turned pro, maybe 30 per cent of the field had a realistic chance of winning. Now it is 80 per cent. So almost anyone can win.
“I think Stacy Lewis is the best player week in and week out, although Inbee Park comes close in that respect. But in terms of raw talent Michelle Wie is number one. She has all the shots and extra length. But Lewis is a top-five machine. Lydia Ko maybe needs a bit of length to compete on certain courses. But she is already a great player. So there is a group of them at that elite level. Which is great for the women’s game.
“If I’m honest, I am probably in the group behind trying to push them in given weeks. A good year for me now is winning another major. But overall, top-15 on the money list would represent success at this stage because I play maybe half a dozen events fewer than the top girls. So I’m not going to be winning the money list any time soon. That just isn’t realistic.”
Closer to home, Matthew was pleased to see the Royal & Ancient Golf Club make the move to admit women members, even if – like most people – she wishes they would get on with the process of telling the world who those women might be.
“It was a no-brainer for them to vote yes,” she points out. “I don’t think it would have happened were that not the case. I think it is good for the image of golf. It had to be done. They can’t be running golf without lady members. But that has long been the case. All I can say is that I’m happy it has changed, even if it took a little pressure from their sponsors. At least in the short term, it is more symbolic than practical. But I’m hopeful that it will encourage more young people to play a game that now doesn’t appear to be as stuffy as it can sometimes seem. It’s a step in the right direction.”
In that regard, Matthew would like to follow the lead of Paul Lawrie and Stephen Gallacher in setting up some sort of foundation to encourage more youngsters into the game that has been her life.
“I would love to do more, along the lines of what Paul and Stephen have done. It’s something I will investigate more as my playing career winds down. The hard part is finding the right avenue. I wouldn’t want to start something that didn’t do well. I understand I have the necessary profile to hopefully attract sponsors and I have looked into it. The biggest problem as far as girls are concerned is numbers. There are so few. So maybe I could help what is already in place.”
Speaking of which, Matthew holds strong views on the women’s amateur game in this country. And she has a suggestion.
“For me, women’s amateur golf in this country has missed a trick,” she says. “When I was in my mid-teens and improving, I had older players in the Scottish squad who were better than me to play with. Now, I’m not sure that is the case. Anyone who is any good has turned pro. So no one is passing on advice to the up-and-coming youngsters. Everyone in the team is basically the same age – and the same standard. The danger then is that they can think they are better than they really are.
“Besides, I’m not sure the SGU and the SLGA exist to train young players to be professionals. I’m not sure that the system as it stands doesn’t put pressure on young players to turn professional when they maybe shouldn’t. I’d like to see more financial help given to our leading amateurs. That would encourage more of them not to turn pro and, in turn, keep them in place to help the next generation. I benefited hugely from playing and listening to older players – even if I didn’t always realise it at the time – and now that has gone completely.”
As for her own immediate future, Matthew has plenty to occupy her mind. There is another Solheim Cup coming up in September – she has played in seven so far – and there is the not insignificant matter of the Olympics next year. If the side were picked today, she would form half of the Great Britain & Northern Ireland team alongside the rising star that is Charley Hull. So, while the end of her playing career may be in sight, Scotland’s best golfer still has things to do.
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