One of the plus points for Europe in a Solheim Cup defeat in Des Moines last August was the debut made by Georgia Hall. The young English player was absolutely nerveless and is someone Catriona Matthew will be keen to have in her ranks in the next instalment of that biennial contest at Gleneagles in just over a year’s time.
Hall, a 22-year-old from Bournemouth, had used the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Kingsbarns 12 months ago to show her mettle, finishing joint-third behind Korea’s IK Kim, and she is off and running again in the same event, this time on the Lancashire coast at Royal Lytham.
On a day when the afternoon starters enjoyed the better conditions as heavy early morning rain was followed by glorious sunshine, Australian Minjee Lee set the pace with a splendid seven-under-par 65 on one of the toughest courses in the UK.
However, Hall is handily-placed just two shots back, having been delighted with a bogey-free effort on a course that has 167 bunkers - the most at an Open Championship venue - and that’s after no less than 37 have been taken out in recent years as a programme aimed at making it for playable for club golfers.
“I was actually pretty calm,” insisted Hall of having a big focus on her this week following that strong performance in Fife last year. “I was playing with the world No 1 [Ariya Jutanugarn], so I think she was more nervous than I was. The crowd was really supportive and they got me going from the first hole. Hitting it to a foot steadied me, as well. This golf course is really, really tough, and to play the round bogey-free I’m really happy.”
She’s heading to Gleneagles next week to play in the inaugural European Golf Team Championships but is focusing on this event for the time being. “Definitely, yeah,” she replied to being asked if she’d come into this week believing she could do better than last year. “But nobody’s going to win a tournament getting ahead of themselves and getting too excited, so I was trying to stay really calm. I’ve got tomorrow to look forward to and try to stay in the same sort of mood.”
Before Kingsbarns, Hall had received some putting advice from Gary Player at his annual charity event at Wentworth. On this occasion at that, she talked to Tom Lehman, who won the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham. “I played with Tom two weeks ago, and he just said, ‘lay up short of the bunkers from the tee’. Listening to his advice, I’ve got a 3-iron in the bag and I’m using that off the tee quite a lot.”
Lee, pictured, who leads by one from Japan’s Mamiko Higa, missed from three feet at the 72nd hole in the Ladies Scottish Open at Gullane last Sunday when it seemed she was set to force a play-off with the aforementioned Jutanugarn. “You can’t win every week, you just try your best and take what positives you can out of that week,” she said of that disappointment.
In fairness, that has been a rare occurence for her this year. As well as winning the Oates Vic Open on home soil, the 22-year-old from Perth has chalked up a victory, two runner-up finishes and five other top 10s on the LPGA Tour this season. She’s up to eighth in the Rolex world rankings.
“I holed a lot of putts today and hit some solid shots, so I’m pretty happy,” said Lee, who converted from 30 feet for an eagle at the par-5 15th and also knocked in a couple other long efforts in her six birdies. “I had pretty good prep at the Scottish Open. The course at Gullane was a bit different to here in that it was up and down hills but getting a feel of the harder ground has really helped me coming into this week.
“I don’t think I would like to play links golf every single week, I think it would be pretty draining. But I do welcome playing links courses. It’s a treat when we do get to play them. My course management was good today as it about managing your way around the bunkers out there and deciding what is smart play and when is good to be aggressive.”
Hall’s compatriot, Charley Hull, came home in four-under 33 as she recovered from struggling to the turn in three-over while it was a similar tale for Catriona Matthew, the winner when the event was last held here in 2009. The 48-year-old was two-over at the halfway stage before fighting back with birdies at the tenth, 13th and 17th on the inward journey.
“I played well on the back nine I made a nice birdie at the 17th, holing about a 20-footer,” said Matthew, who had been bitterly disappointed to make an early exit last week at Gullane, especially as she’s been a member there since she was a youngster. “It was nice out there today. You do remember the odd shot from 2009 and hopefully I can keep remembering a few more good ones.”
The 48-year-old added: “I’ve been playing well. I’ve just been throwing in these awful days every so often. Hopefully I’m not going to have one of those tomorrow. I hit it well today. You can’t score well round here if you don’t play decent golf.”
Kylie Henry, the only other Scot in the 144-strong field, hit the opening shot at 6.30am and was going along okay before following dropped shots at the 15th and 17th with a triple-bogey 7 at the last. It included a “knifed” bunker shot that cost her a penalty drop due to the ball embedding itself in the face and also a shank into the tented village.
“It was frustrating as I had scrambled well to be one-over after 14 holes before having a disappointing finish,” admitted Walker after signing for a six-over-par 78.