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ISPS Handa NZ Womenís Open hosted by Christchurch: Highs and Lows of the week at Clearwater

 A strong gallery watching Beth Allen

The 6000 strong gallery that attended the final day of the ISPS Handa NZ Women’s Open didn’t get the result they were hoping for but the championship will last long in the memory for being a great event. New Zealand Golf Media and PR Manager Peter Thornton looks back on the highs and lows from the sixth staging of the New Zealand Women’s Open at the Clearwater Golf Club in Christchurch.

Mi Hyang Lee makes a name for herself:  Going into the final round eight shots back from the leader American Anya Alvarez Mi Hyang Lee gave herself no chance of contending the title. That changed very quickly. Lee got off to a fast start with an eagle at the second and that was all she needed to get the confidence up – the best round of her life at the most appropriate time followed at Clearwater. Lee made short work of the John Darby and Sir Bob Charles designed layout making seven birdies and an eagle to break the course record with an incredible nine-under par 63. It could have been even better too. She had a putt from around 15 feet on the last to shoot a 62 which was just offline. It was an incredible round of golf and the perfect way for the 20-year-old to secure her first professional title. Lee was a real character to deal with. She kept apologizing for her poor English to the media but there was no need. Everyone knew exactly what it meant to her to win as she became the first South Korean to claim the title. Lee, who is playing her second year on the LPGA Tour, is sure to go onto bigger things. When she does golf fans from NZ will reflect on her career and say: “I was there at Clearwater when she won for the first time.”

Ko shows bravery and resilience:  What more can we say about our 16-year-old superstar Lydia Ko? She was violently ill with a stomach bug the night before the second round. Her support team suggested that she should withdraw from the event but she refused saying that there were too many people counting on her. Those who weren’t too close to Lyds would not have known that anything was wrong. She played very nicely in the second round – carding a three-under par 69 – to be two shots back heading into the final round and held herself remarkably well considering her energy levels were so low. She was feeling better in the final round but suffered from stomach cramps on the back nine as she tried to defend her title. Ko needed to birdie the final two holes to force a playoff with Lee and after a clutch putt on the 17th she came up just short on the 18th. Still it was a remarkable fight back from the World No.4. We know all about her world class talent, work ethic and dedication but last week she showed bravery and resilience that belied her age. She refused to give up. When she reviews her performance at Clearwater she will see two holes as missed opportunities. Her three-putt at the end of the second round and her missed birdie putt on the par 5 14th on the closing stretch were blights on her scorecard.  But for her to contend right to the last was a phenomenal achievement in itself. She handled the defeat like a champion. She went straight over to Lee and gave her a big hug to say well done on her performance. Any way you look at it Lyds is a class act.  

Prime Minister takes time out to be at the event:  John Key wasn’t going to be anywhere else. The PM, who loves his golf and is a dedicated fan of Lydia Ko, was in his happy place amongst the people cheering the local favourite home.  It was great to have him there. His speech at the prize-giving was natural and appropriate as he congratulated Lee with Korean phrases – it was a nice personal touch. Mr. Key stayed on to play nine holes of golf at Clearwater with Midori Miyazaki's – the Executive Director of International Affairs at International Sports Promotion Society – and loved every minute of it. Golf is becoming a central part of Tourism New Zealand’s strategy and it is great to have our PM so passionate about the game.

The crowds: More people than ever before attended the ISPS Handa NZ Women’s Open. They all came to see Lydia Ko in action and she didn’t disappoint. On Friday there were 900 more than in 2013, on Saturday 1500 more and on Sunday the numbers were greater by 2000 punters. The sight on Sunday afternoon of people for as far as the eye could see down the 18th hole was a spectacle. It was a fitting image for just how far the tournament has come in a short time. Again the growth of these numbers lies in the ongoing success of the New Zealand No.1. She was the highest ranked player since Tiger Woods, who played the NZ Open at Paraparaumu Beach in 2002 as the World No.1, to play in one of our National Opens and it showed with the response. Lyds coming back year on year is a huge priority for the championship. She is a huge asset in so many ways for New Zealand Golf.

The turnout of the media:  In the same vein as above Lydia Ko’s impact on the media was quite remarkable. The World No.4’s press conference on the Thursday before the pro-am championship was the only chance for them to talk to her and it had a similar feel to when golf journos used to pack into a small room to talk to Michael Campbell after he won the US Open Championship. Lyds handled her media responsibilities once again with real maturity. The media monitoring report is still to be completed but it is expected that the tournament received the most coverage it ever has and the stories were in the most part very positive about the event.

The condition of the course: Clearwater has had a successful time hosting events in Christchurch in a short time. Every time you go back there the course seems that little bit better. It has matured nicely and is now the world-class championship layout it has promised to be. I have never seen it in better condition and the greens were immaculate, they were like carpet and running so true, for the sixth New Zealand Open. It showed in the scoring with many players like Lee showing that a low number was certainly out there to be had. 

The Kiwis: Three golfers – Ko, Cathryn Bristow and Caroline Bon - from 19 New Zealand players made the two-round cut of the top 50 players and ties. It would have been great to see more of our players competing in the final round and in future years I expect we will. But this stat doesn’t tell the full story. An amateur like Julianne Alvarez (73, 74) had a solid week missing the cut by only one stroke. She will be better from that experience – review what she could have done a little bit better - and hopefully put it to good use this year as she looks to qualify for the Espirito Santo team. Stacey Tate also came from the golfing wilderness to share the first round lead at four-under par in her National Open. It was an incredible opening 18 holes from the Sydney-based Kiwi. She birdied the first 5 holes of her back nine at Clearwater to lead the tournament by two shots before she bogeyed her final two holes. But she was happy and great to deal with on her first visit to the media centre. Tate unfortunately missed the cut by two strokes after she backed up her four-under par 68 with an 80. But she should see the positives of her week. The ALPG player showed that when she is at her best she is as capable as any player in a world-class field and she should take heart from that.

Learning from the best:  On Saturday morning New Zealand No.1 Vaughan McCall got up bright and early and hit the road for a six hour journey from Gore to Christchurch to watch Lydia play. He said: “She is the best and there is so much to learn from in how she plays. I am here to learn from the best.” What a great attitude. McCall also got the chance to meet PM John Key in the hosting lounge and was smiling from ear to ear. I am sure he would tell you that his long drive to CHCH and back was well worth it.  

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