Date: February 15, 2017
Author: Karen Harding

PREVIEW: Best ever field set for Open showdown


The 2017 ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open has a crack field of young players, experienced players, and players of differing styles. But there is one thing that all will show.

The battle for the number one spot in women’s golf, which raged fiercely throughout 2016, continues when Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn pick up arms at Royal Adelaide this week.

Jutanugarn’s 2016 was nothing short of sensational. Starting the season ranked 62 in the world, she finished at number two, in the process taking out five titles and claiming her first major, the RICOH Women’s British Open. She is the first major winner – male or female – from Thailand.

Jutanugarn’s first three LPGA titles came in consecutive tournaments (the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic, the Kingsmill Championship presented by JTBC and the LPGA Volvik Championship), the first player in LPGA history to achieve this, while her record in majors through the year was outstanding – fourth at the ANA Inspiration, third at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, T17 at the U.S. Women’s Open and T9 at The Evian, on top of her British Open win.

11 additional top-10 finishes, including a T4 at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, secured her the Race to the CME Globe Bonus, the Official Money Title and the Rolex Player of the Year. In doing so, she joined Ko as the only two players to win all three in the same season.

What must be noted, however, is that Jutanugarn’s year was just one season. Ko has been performing at that level since she debuted at number four in world rankings in 2014.  And her 2016 wasn’t half bad, either.

With four wins, including her second career major at the ANA Inspiration, and a further 14 top-10s, Ko’s year was up to what we now consider her customary outstanding standard. Her record in majors was also high quality in 2016, finishing second in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and tied third in the U.S. Women’s Open, aside from her ANA Inspiration win, and she was honoured with the Rolex ANNIKA Major award. She was also silver medallist at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The youngest in history, male or female, to reach number one in the world – at 17 years nine months and nine days – Ko has been making and breaking records since her amateur days. If tweaks recently implemented have the desired effect, more records are on the way.

Jutanugarn’s performance last season spurred her rival to eye even greater heights. In the last few months, Ko has changed her caddie, her clubs and her coach as part of an overall review of her game, with the intent to take her game to another level again. Imagine!

Of course, the race to hold the Patricia Bridges Bowl is no two-horse affair. The 2017 ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open boasts a tremendous field, one of the strongest in its illustrious history. Consider this: four of the world’s top-10 players are in attendance – Ko and Jutanugarn at numbers one and two in the world plus Ha Na Jang and Brooke Henderson at six and eight respectively – and seven of the top-20 when you add Charley Hull, Minjee Lee and Carlota Ciganda. Notably, too, we have three of the five 2016 major winners in Ko, Jutanugarn and Henderson.

Other former Open winners include the evergreen Catriona Matthew (1996), Yani Tseng, (2010 and 2011), Laura Davies (2004 and 2009) and Karrie Webb, champion five times in 2000, 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2014.

These experienced champions are being hotly chased in the record books by the incredible number of talented youngsters coming into the top ranks of the game.

At the end of the 2016 season, seven of the top-10 world ranked players were under 25 – the top three under 21 – while the average age of LPGA tournament winners was 22.3 years. Of the 10 highest ranked players in this field, seven are under 25 – Ko, Jutanugarn, Jang, Henderson, Hull, Minjee Lee and defending champion Haru Nomura.

Indeed, the game is in a very healthy state. Not only does the future look bright in the form of these talented young players, it is becoming an increasingly global game. In 2017, 15 different countries will host an LPGA event. Of the 33 individual events in 2016, there were 18 different winners representing 12 different countries. 11 of those winners are playing at Royal Adelaide this week.

45 countries were represented at Qualifying School. 17 out of the top-20 players contest this event, including young Taiwanese Ssu-Chia Cheng who, as a 17-year-old amateur, claimed the Xiamen International Ladies Open, co-sanctioned with the CLPGA, on her Ladies European Tour (LET) debut.

Also among the Q-School graduates is veteran Beth Allen who is in some of the best form of her career, in 2016 becoming the first American to win the LET Order of Merit and finishing fourth in the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. England’s Melissa Reid, who has a sterling record at earlier appearances in this event, is making a welcome return. Reid showed glimpses of her old form in the Bahamas and last week put it all together to take out the Oates Vic Open.

All 10 of the Symetra Tour graduates will be on show, too, as they seek to establish themselves on the LPGA Tour. One of these girls is 18-year-old Nelly Korda, younger sister of 2012 champion Jessica and other daughter of 1998 Australian Open tennis champion Petr. Nelly tied fifth at her first event as an LPGA Rookie, the 2017 Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic. Will we see another Korda scissor-kick in Australia?

Sisters abound for this tournament. Moriya Jutanugarn, older sister of Ariya, is a talented player in her own right and determined to carve her own fine career. Watch out for the Mo and May show.

Brooke Henderson’s older sister Brittany will be on her bag here, as she has been for some time, putting aside her own professional career. The two have had tremendous success together.

Another sister of interest is Mardi Lunn, caddie for China’s Xi Yu Lin. Mardi, a former touring professional, is the younger sister of ALPG chief Karen, and has carved out a successful caddying career.

Australia is well represented in her national championship. Minjee Lee continues to excite her country, adding two more LPGA titles last season to her resume, while fellow Olympian Su Oh made an excellent start in her rookie LPGA season and looks to improve further.

Then there’s Karrie. Our Karrie. The Open would not be the same without her. The debt Australian golf owes to this supreme champion is immeasurable. Although her 2016 was not to her liking, she was third in this event last year and a sixth title is not beyond her. Never doubt a champion’s heart.

Another notable in the field is Michelle Wie, she of the incredible natural talent who has been plagued most of her career with injury concerns. Wie is certain to attract considerable attention for her fashion style, although she has just this week ditched her self-styled "tabletop" putting stance. Her win at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at the tough Pinehurst No.2 course remains a career highlight, but she has 11 other top-10s in majors to go with that and at any time, in any event, is a serious contender.

One of the great things about all these fine players is the different ways they play. Some are ‘Steady Eddies’ – Ko being the outstanding exponent, especially with putter in hand – and some are just excitement machines – think Hull and Jang. Jutanugarn pounds out birdie after birdie, as does Henderson. Mo Martin barely misses a fairway with the driver. Jenny Shin could give lessons in escaping from bunkers. And Nomura is just plain relentless. What will the 2017 ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open produce? Anything and everything is possible. One thing is for sure, though: expect brilliance!