Women’s Open: Players braced for fierce storm as event gets under way

R&A put plans in place for two rounds on Sunday if time is lost

Many of the world’s leading players will be vying for the AIG Women’s Open trophy at Royal Troon. Picture: R&A via Getty
Many of the world’s leading players will be vying for the AIG Women’s Open trophy at Royal Troon. Picture: R&A via Getty

Competitors in the Helen Holm Trophy invariably get it tough at Royal Troon at the end of April. Just ask Catriona Matthew. “I remember it playing into a gale on the back nine,” she said in recalling her 1990 win – she was still Catriona Lambert at the time – over the Ayrshire links in one of Scotland’s leading amateur events.

It’s doubtful, though, if many stagings of that tournament dating back to 1973 got underway with the same almost apocalyptic weather forecast as the one being predicted for the historic first staging of the AIG Women’s Open at the same venue.

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Storm Ellen is set to deliver strong winds in the south-west of Scotland over the next couple of days, blowing at a steady 20mph, according to R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, but gusting up to 45mph at times.

With disruption of play almost inevitable in the first two rounds, Slumbers has already taken the unusual step of sending a note to all the players in a 144-strong field. In a nutshell, he says the “fundamental aim” remains to have an event played over 72 holes but extending it to a Monday finish is not a possibility due to Covid-19 safety protocols.

In the event of a “significant amount of playing time” being lost on the first two days, the number of players making the cut could be reduced from the intended top 65 and ties, something that would be beneficial if the target was to play two rounds on Sunday.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy for the next two days,” predicted Slumbers, both in terms of the challenge facing the players and the R&A’s team of rules officials. “We are easing the golf course as much as we can to make it as playable because we want a spectacle. But we have not taken the full teeth out of the golf course.”

That would be impossible. Even on a calm day, Royal Troon is one of the best tests in championship golf. If there’s any positives to take out of that forecast, it’s the fact the wind is to blow from south on Thursday and southwest on Friday. That being the case, the back nine will not be its usual ferocious test.

“We have looked to make sure that carries can be made on some of the par 5s, but we’ve also looked to make sure that bunkers that are meant to be in play off the tee are in play off the tee, even in a 20-25mph wind,” added Slumbers, “We will be wrestling with balls moving. We slowed the greens down and a bit of rain is forecast that will soften it a little bit, but there’s plenty of rough.”

It was the calm before the storm as players completed their preparations for the first women’s major in 2020 in balmy conditions. While some of the top Koreans, including world No 1 Jin Young Ko, are absentees due to feeling uncomfortable about travelling at the moment, the historic occasion has attracted a mouth-watering line up.

It is headed by second-ranked American Danielle Kang, with five others from the world’s top 10 - Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, Australian Minjee Lee, Canadian Brooke Henderson and US pair Nelly Korda and Lexi Thompson – as they join defending champion Hinako Shibuno from Japan in the battle to join the likes of Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and, of course, Henrik Stenson in becoming a major winner on this course.

“It’s fascinating listening to the players as they have been having their practice rounds,” said Slumbers, who is delighted to see this event go ahead after admitting it had been tough to cancel the men’s equivalent at Royal St George’s earlier in the year to the pandemic. “The overriding feeling is, ‘wow, this is a really tough links golf course, and at times, pretty intimidating’. We want to make sure the best players who are playing well can score because that’s what I think professional golf should be about.”

It was Stacy Lewis, the newly-crowned Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open champion, who summed up what getting an opportunity to make history means to the players this week. “This is a big week for women’s golf,” said the American, who is bidding to emulate Phil Mickelson’s feat in 2013 by winning back-to-back on Scottish soil. “To be playing here on a golf course that’s been in the men’s rotation for a very long time and didn’t even allow female members to come play this golf course for a very long time.

“So this is a really big week and I think a lot of girls, I was talking to Minjee Lee yesterday, and she didn’t know. She didn’t realise the history here and what we were really doing. There’s just a lot of history to be made this week.”

In her 40th appearance in the event, Laura Davies has been handed the honour of hitting the opening shot. “The condition of the course is about as good as I reckon you could have a links golf course,” she reported. “I said to a couple of girls I was practicing with this weeek that they are the best links greens I’ve ever putted on. They really are unbelievable.”

As well as admitting it was an “honour”, she admitted that being out first had other benefits. “More importantly, you get a clear golf course, and I’m looking forward to not waiting on people,” added Davies of not having to worry about slow play, something that raised its ugly head as rounds took more than five hours on the final day in last week’s warm up, so to speak, at The Renaissance Club.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Slumbers on that hot topic. “This is going to be very, very tough for the next two days. But I have written to all the players today, saying that we have an opportunity to set an example throughout the week, irrespective of disruptive weather. Being ready to play and playing at a good pace are always important and will be more so this week if we having to ‘catch up’ on lost playing time.”

Matthew, the 2009 winner, is joined by Gemma Dryburgh, Carly Booth, Kylie Henry and Michele Thomson in flying the Saltire on home soil, while England’s Mel Reid (2006 and 2007), as well as Irish pair Leona Maguire (2009) and Olivia Mehaffey (2015) will also be aiming to draw on experience from Helen Holm Trophy triumphs.

It might not be pretty at times if the wind does get nasty, but let’s still enjoy history being made.

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