|From left: leading amateur Lydia Ko and tournament champion Yani Tseng at the 2011 Handa Women's Australian Open at Commonwealth Golf Club in Melbourne.
Last November, all eyes were on Royal Melbourne when some of the world’s best male golfers were there for the 2011 Presidents Cup. Now it’s time for the ladies’ to take on the course.
For the first time in its storied history, Royal Melbourne Golf Club will be the host of a women's professional golf event with 156 players competing this week for a $1.1 million, or €845,210, purse.
Rolex World No.1 Yani Tseng, who claimed the title last year at Commonwealth Golf Club, is looking for an unprecedented third consecutive ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open title.
With a total of six of the top-10 players in the Rolex Rankings present, her challengers include World No.2 Suzann Pettersen, World No.4 Cristie Kerr, No. 7 Jiyai Shin, No. 9 Stacy Lewis and No. 10 Brittany Lincicome.
Tseng captured a total of 12 victories worldwide in 2011 while establishing herself as the clear player to beat in women's golf.
She set up her season with two wins in Australia and said: “That was one of my best memories ever. I played at Commonwealth the last two years. I am very happy to be back here and play Royal Melbourne.
“It is an unbelievable golf course. It was pretty tough. The greens were fast. I am very excited and can't wait to go out and have fun.”
She is hoping that some recent swing changes will pay off this week.
“This is a new year for me. I have been working real hard in the off season to change my swing a bit, to make it more consistent. I think I am ready for this year.
“I have tried to change my back swing. I have tried to get physically stronger, so my swing can match my physique. I have been working out very good. My trainer was in Orlando with me last month, and my coach. We work really hard.
“I have more power. I don't swing as hard as before. I feel I am swinging easier and striking the ball better.
I feel that if I swing 70-80 percent, the ball is still flying better than before. I always tried to swing really hard. Now I don't swing so hard but the ball still goes that far. I am very happy about that...I can still rip it.”
For Norwegian Pettersen, a member of the victorious European Solheim Cup team in Ireland last September, the off-season provided the perfect opportunity to take up a new hobby: cycling. She has been spending over an hour each morning on her new bike and now feels fit and ready to go.
Pettersen, who won the Ladies Irish Open on the LET and twice on the LPGA in 2011, watched the Presidents Cup on TV and said: “I can't wait to putt off these greens. I found it fun to see the guys struggle as much as they did here. But that was match play. You can just pick it up and go to the next tee. You have just lost the hole. Here you have to put a score together, maybe play a bit more conservative.”
She spoke of her dream to become World No.1: “I feel like my game is there. Yani has a great head start. It will probably take more than a season to catch up with her. I don't really look at her game. I look at my game. What can I do better to get my game more consistent and to get the most out of it. But she is a great No. 1. She is a very aggressive player, very fearless and obviously has a lot of confidence. I've beaten her before so I know I can do it.”
Four-time event champion Webb, who has been made an honorary member of Royal Melbourne, has also made some recent swing changes and revealed that she is targeting the 2016 Olympic Games. “The Olympics are still the thing I am setting my sights on. If retirement was on the cards, I would not have made these swing changes or worked as hard as I did in the off season,” she said.
The European challengers include Christel Boeljon, who will be full of confidence following her win at the Gold Coast RACV Australian Ladies Masters on Sunday. She is one of nine victorious European Solheim Cup team members in the field along with Pettersen, Laura Davies, Melissa Reid, Sophie Gustafson, Sandra Gal, Caroline Hedwall, Azahara Munoz and Anna Nordqvist.
The two-time event champion in 2004 and 2009, Davies played a rare practice round on Tuesday, hinting that she is up for the title. Gustafson won the championship in 2001.
Reid, the runner-up in 2011, also has a fantastic record on Melbourne’s sandbelt courses, having finished third on her professional debut at Kingston Heath in 2007. At the time, she did not have a full card from Qualifying School but received a sponsor’s invitation and was able to play in the remaining Ladies European Tour schedule as a result of her being in the top 20 on the Money List, allowing her to start her now flourishing career.
Australians hoping to claim their national title include the 2011 Sanya Ladies Open champion Frances Bondad, Karen Lunn, Sarah Kemp, Katherine Hull and Nikki Campbell.
The teenagers cannot be ruled out, especially the 14-year-old New Zealander Lydia Ko, the top-ranked golfer in the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), who last month became one of the youngest ever winners of a professional tour event with a four-shot victory in the Women’s New South Wales Open. January also saw her become the youngest winner of the Australian Women’s Amateur following a second place finish in the Australian Women’s Stroke Play Championship.
Ko, who discovered earlier this week that winning the McCormack Medal has secured a place in the U.S. Women’s Open, tied for 12th at last year’s ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and finished as the leading amateur, 13 strokes behind the winner, Tseng.
Meanwhile Lexi Thompson, who turns 17 this week, will continue her rookie season on the Ladies European Tour and start her LPGA Tour campaign in the tri-sanctioned event with the Australian Ladies Professional Golf (ALPG) Tour. Thompson became the youngest winner in LPGA history at the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic last September. It was one of two wins worldwide for the 16-year-old last year. She also became the second youngest player after Amy Yang to win on the Ladies European Tour (LET) when she closed out her 2011 season with a victory at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters in December.
The ladies will face quite a test this week when they get a rare opportunity to tee it up on the renowned Royal Melbourne Composite course. The Composite course is made up of 12 holes from the West Course and six from the East, contained within the more compact clubhouse precinct of the property. The Composite is considered one of the world's ten best courses and has hosted many important events, including the Presidents Cups of 1998 and 2011, but never a women's event, either professional or amateur.
The course used for the Women's Australian Open will differ from the Presidents Cup by only one hole - the 16th (4th East) - as it resumes its regular place in the Composite. The order of the front nine order is the same but the back nine has been altered to enable the famous 18th hole to revert to its classic finishing position.