John Huggan: Catriona Matthew’s eye on prize

2013 Scottish golfer of the year Catriona Matthew. Picture: Getty Images
2013 Scottish golfer of the year Catriona Matthew. Picture: Getty Images
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Scotland’s golfer of the year reckons it’s better to be streaky than consistent when it comes earning

JUST back from a three-week competitive jaunt that took in events as far away as Australia, Thailand and Singapore, Scotland’s golfer of the year for 2013 has been back in “mummy mode” these past few days.

Taking advantage of a fortnight-long gap in the LPGA schedule, Catriona Matthew is back home in North Berwick tending to the various needs of her two children, daughters Katie and Sophie and husband/part-time caddie, Graeme.

The just-completed trip was, at least in terms of results, an uncharacteristically diverse mixture of failure (a missed cut at the Women’s Australian Open), stellar stuff (third place in Thailand) and mediocrity (a tie for 45th at the HSBC Champions in Singapore). But financially it has to be rated a success, with the Matthew bank account now $107,294 (£64,160) better off – compared to the $78,028 (£46,659) she picked up for steady finishes (T-8, T-14 and T-10) in the same three tournaments a year ago.

“After playing on tour as long as I have, I know it is better to have two average weeks and one very good one, as opposed to three consistent but not great events,” says Matthew, whose 19-year LPGA career has seen her earn almost $8.5 million (£5.1m). “Financially, it is better to hit the ‘home run’ and be streaky rather than steady, better to make a lot of putts in one week rather than spread them over three.

“Having said that, I’ll always look back and wish I had won more. I have never set out to be only consistent, that’s just the way it has turned out. Last year, Stacy Lewis had 14 top-ten finishes. Which is great. But I’m not sure too many people even noticed that. Still, while it’s all about winning, the sort of form Stacy showed has to build confidence. If you’re up there in contention every week, the chances are your time will come sooner rather than later.

“So I haven’t changed anything in my attitude or level of aggressiveness in an attempt to win more. I’m certainly not going for more pins tucked behind bunkers. My feeling is that the more consistent I am, the more likely I am to win. That’s why I work so hard on my game. The closer I can hit my shots, the more putts I will make and the more events I will hopefully win.”

Still, whatever the formula employed, the former Women’s British Open champion’s play has long made her one of the more famous faces in the ladies’ game – at least when she ventures to the Far East. While she attracts little in the way of public attention in her homeland, the 44-year-old world No.11 is ironically a better-kent figure in places where the average humidity tends to be more than a little bit higher than in East Lothian.

“Women’s golf has a much higher profile in the Far East than it does here,” says Matthew with a smile. “So I do tend to get recognised a bit more when I’m over there. Whenever I emerge from customs and immigration in places like Taipei (Taiwan) and Thailand there are always people there waiting for autographs.

“Sitting on planes is always interesting too. Not that long ago, I was flying from Seoul in Korea to Taipei when a stewardess came up behind me. She said there was someone looking for my autograph. When I turned round there were ten people standing in line.

“Another time I was flying to Korea when I noticed the lady next to me pretending to take a photograph out of the window. She wasn’t, she was actually taking a picture of me. A few days later she approached me at the tournament wanting my autograph on the developed print.”

Matthew will be off to the States next week for another three-week run of tournaments culminating in the year’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs. And there is the intriguing prospect of the Women’s US Open at Pinehurst No. 2 – the biggest event in the ladies’ game – immediately after the men play their US Open on the same course.

“I might be wrong, of course, but I feel like, logistically, it would have been better for us to go before the men,” says Matthew, whose best finish in what the Americans call the ‘National Open’ is tied for fourth in 2001. “I’m sure we would get more of a media presence, at least for the weekend before the men arrive. It would have been nice to get that extra exposure.

“Plus, with smaller crowds there for us, the course would have been less beaten-up. I worry about the state of the course after the men have finished. Typically, the greens are almost dead by the end of the men’s US Open. And I worry that the media will be there for the men then disappear when we arrive.”

While many are already speculating about the possibility of direct comparison between the play on either side of the gender gap, Matthew has a few other reservations about the United States Golf Association’s admittedly innovative idea. For one thing, the length of the storied course from one week to the next is something she thinks will preclude any definitive conclusions being reached.

“It won’t be just a case of moving the tees up for us,” contends Matthew. “There’s more to it than that. Week-to-week, we actually play much ‘longer’ courses than the men. We tend to hit longer clubs into the greens. So, by that measure alone, our tees will need to be 50-70 yards ahead of the men’s.

“Assuming the men are playing Pinehurst at just over 7,000 yards long, that means our course will have to be about 5,800 yards. Which is unheard of on the LPGA Tour. We typically play at 6,600-6,700 yards. But if that is the length for us, the men will have to go out there at 8,000 yards if they are to be hitting the same clubs into the greens. [Former PGA Tour player] Brandel Chamblee had it right on the Golf Channel when he said that we play courses that are far too long compared with the men.

“Plus, on a hole where the men hit a fairway wood or a long iron off the tee, will it be set up to play the same way for us? Or will we have to hit a driver to the spot where the men have hit shorter clubs? If that is the case, we will then be hitting more club to the green and direct comparison is almost impossible. Whatever happens though, my hope is that the public will see that the women, ‘pound for pound’, are actually pretty good players.”

Some, like Matthew, are even better than that. Her recent award is a much deserved – if belated – acknowledgement of prolonged excellence at the highest level. She is the first female winner of Scottish Golf’s player of the year title and follows in the footsteps of previous winners Paul Lawrie and David Law. As ever, she was typically modest: “It was great to get that sort of recognition, especially when it is something open to both men and women. As we know, all sports tend to be male-oriented. So this represents a big deal for women’s golf in general.”

And with that she was off to the pool. Swimming with the girls.