With nothing doing on the DP World Tour this week, the European spotlight falls on the female of the species when the creme de la creme of women’s golf descends on wonderful Walton Heath for the final Major of the LPGA year, the AIG Women’s Open.
Macho men who turn their noses up at watching it or switch to another channel don’t know what they’re missing - it’s not only tip-top entertainment but highly competitive. The best play to a standard closer to their male equivalents than in any other sport. They swing elegantly but powerfully, putt brilliantly, look good and score every bit as well, albeit from different tees.
All that and Walton Heath too … we’re in for a fabulous week with every chance of a European victory. After French star Celine Boutier’s stunning back-to-back victories in France and Scotland, morale could not be higher.
I love these two ancient Surrey courses, the Old and the New, created by Herbert Fowler 120 years ago, so much and the ambiance of a historic piece of heathland that goes with them - King Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales, was its first captain in 1935 - that I’ve left instructions for my ashes to be scattered there.
My best golfing memories are tied to that special place - my lowest round ever came on the New (75 off 12 handicap and still didn’t win!) while the Old is where long ago I struck lucky in two 36-hole matchplay finals. It’s all about avoiding the cavernous fairway bunkers and staying out of the tangly heather and gorse.
This week, as they have done in the past when hosting European Opens and the 1981 Ryder Cup, they will be playing a composite course, mainly the Old but a few of the New’s finest. The short first on the Old, the only hole on the clubhouse side of a narrow road, is ditched, the tournament teeing off on what is the tough second for members.
Recalling that very damp Ryder Cup, has there ever been a better US side? Only one member of it, Bruce Lietzke, was not a Major champion and at least four, Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino and Miller, were indisputably all-time greats. Little wonder Europe were wiped out 18.5 to 9.5. Yet only four years later, at The Belfry, the Footjoys were on the other foot as Tony Jacklin’s men avenged 38 years of hurt.
This is the first time the Women’s Open has gone to Walton Heath which means very few of the overseas contingent will have experienced this predominantly flat course. It could give the home players an edge. Just short of 6700 yards, it’s not a test of length but of accuracy and course management. Four of the five European Opens staged there back in the day went to Tom Kite, Bobby Wadkins, Andrew Murray (no, not THAT one!) and Mike Harwood, none renowned for the power game. And when it hosted the 2018 British Masters, the front two, Eddie Pepperell and Alexander Bjork, did it with guile rather than power. So punters are steered towards straight-shooters rather than the wham-bam brigade.
If some of the prominent names in the betting are new to you, it’s because the younger generation are taking over. Three of the first four 2023 Majors went to Lilia Vu, Ruoning Yin and Allisen Corpuz, all young first-timers. Only the Evian heroine Boutier, 29, was an established name when she completed a quartet of first-time Major champions.
Much younger than the others, 20-year-old Yin, the Chinese sensation who won the PGA Championship to add to the LA Open in March and has just finished third at the Scottish, is the one I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of. She has a superstar’s composure under pressure.
For Boutier to win three weeks in a row comes into the realms of fairytale but I’m hoping she will inspire her Solheim Cup colleagues Leona Maguire, Georgina Hall, Charley Hull and Anna Nordqvist as well as exciting Swedes Linn Grant and Maja Stark.
Maguire, star of the last Solheim Cup on her debut, has opened her LPGA account since then as has Grant more recently, while Hull, out of the blue and after a poor run, took second place at the US Open. She is capable of anything but is totally unpredictable. I think Maguire and Grant will be best suited to the course and are Europe’s best chances.
The last American to win the British was short-hitting Mo Martin back in 2014 and it is surprising the magnificent Nelly Korda hasn’t made more of an impact. Her year has been interrupted by back problems and while recent results suggest she’s 100% now, if she loses a few arguments with the heather it could put her back out again.
At her best she is easily the best American player but keep an eye out for Chevron winner Vu and thrilling newcomer Rose Zhang, another 20-year-old, who won her first tour start and has finished in the top ten in three Majors.
Inch for inch, Nasa Hataoka at 5ft 1 is the mighty atom of Japanese golf and arrives on the back of finishing third at the US Open and fourth at the Evian. Seventh to South African star Ash Buhai at last year AIG Open and a prolific mopper-up of lesser tournaments, she could well make it a nap hand of first-time Major winners in 2023.
Of the large Korean squad Hyo Joo Kim, whose second place at Dundonald was the seventh top-ten of a lucrative but winless year, and A-Lim Kim, just behind her in fourth, have plenty going for them as we know they are in form. Hyo Joo would have been a pick but for the sight of her limping quite noticeably on Sunday. It didn’t seem to impede her and Walton Heath is an easy walking course. The weather shouldn’t cause any problems either. I’m wary of putting up a player who might not be 100% fit but beware the injured golfer!
Atthaya Thitikul and Yuka Saso are two more gifted youngsters who come into the conversation but don’t rule out a shock winner - it’s not so long since unknown German Sophia Popov won at 500/1.
Leona Maguire (25/1), Ruoning Yin (33/1), Nasa Hatoaka (25/1)
Linn Grant (22/1), Rose Zhang (18/1)
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