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Golf - 23. November 2011.

HSBC Women's Champions: Why The 1s?

The HSBC Women’s Champions returns to Singapore in February, with LPGA
legend Karrie Webb defending the title as the latest name in a roll of
honour that is almost unrivalled in recent years. Tim Maitland talks to the
stars of the women’s game to work out why the event has only ever been won
by the best of the best.*

Lorena Ochoa, at her most dominant, finished streets ahead of a returning
Annika Sorenstam in 2008. A year later Jiyai Shin lifted the trophy at the
start of her “rookie” season (she won three LPGA events as a non-member in
2008, including a Major) as part of a relentless charge that would make her
the third number one in the history of the official rankings. In 2010, Ai
Miyazato held the same silverware and shortly afterwards held the number
one ranking, too. Then came Karrie, who by the age of 25 had already
qualified for the World Golf Hall of Fame and who, but for the Rolex
Rankings only being introduced in 2006, was a number one in everything but
name.

Has any other tournament consistently crowned such worthy champions in this
time span? It’s a question that prompts plenty of head scratching.

“Maybe Kraft is one?” ponders current world number one Yani Tseng of Taiwan.

“The British Open?” she asks, cracking up laughing because her main
motivation for mentioning it is the fact that she’s won it the past two
seasons.

Of the Majors, the Ricoh Women’s British Open might be the nearest
comparison to the HSBC Women’s Champions roll of honour, with Yani winning
in 2011 and 2010 while Jiyai claimed it in 2008, but 2009 champion Catriona
Matthew might be the first to point out that she doesn’t quite belong in
the conversation if we’re talking about the greats in the game. The same
applies for Stacey Lewis and Brittany Lincicome, winners of the Kraft
Nabisco Championship in 2011 and 2009 respectively, in between wins for
Yani (2010) and Lorena (2008). The LPGA Championship also comes close with
Cristie Kerr in 2010 and Yani in 2011 and 2008, but 2009 winner Anna
Nordqvist hasn’t yet thrust her name into the highest echelon.

New to Major status next year, the Evian Masters won by Ai, Jiyai and Ai in
the past three years comes close, and another of the Asian Spring Swing –
the Honda LPGA Thailand – also belong in the conversation, with Yani, Ai
and Lorena its most recent champions.

One can talk oneself around in circles debating the argument. The certainty
is that in short order the HSBC Women’s Champions has become something
special.

“It’s one of the best tournaments we ever play!” is Yani’s take.

“I think the HSBC event is the biggest LPGA event in Asia!” is Jiyai Shin’s
verdict.

“It’s great from when we first arrive to when we leave. We get looked after
very, very well. We stay in great hotels, there’s great hospitality and we
play on a great challenging golf course!” declares Karrie, who has
certainly earned the right to talk about greatness.

“We’d like it like that every week,” the Queensland legend adds.

Yani, like Webb, expands on her statement by citing the overall package of
the tournament week, rather than purely the golf.

“It’s a good one. They’re all the best players in the world challenging
that week. It’s always very tough to win that tournament. You have to play
so well to be among the great players, which is fun. It doesn’t matter what
your score is; it’s always very enjoyable in Singapore, the hospitality
there. And you know I love Singapore; I have so many good friends there. I
always look forward to going back. I have so much fun and have so many good
friends come,” says Tseng, last year’s double Major champion, seven-time
winner and Player of the Year on the LPGA with 11 total wins worldwide.

Jiyai meanwhile backs up her description of the event being Asia’s best
with the following explanation: “All the events are very important, but it
feels like a really big tournament.  It’s a beautiful course and a nice
city. The tournament is early in the season, and when you win it feels like
a good start and it gives you confidence at the beginning of the season,
too.”

*Roll of Honour*

The first sign that something unusual was happening in Singapore was,
perhaps, when Ai Miyazato declared eight months after her 2010 win that it
was “an honour” to have added her name to a list of winners that had only
two others on it. At the time she was speaking as the reigning world number
one.

Karrie Webb is the youngest member of an exclusive club of five other
legends to have won the LPGA’s Career Grand Slam of Majors, joining Louise
Suggs (1957), Mickey Wright (1962), Pat Bradley (1986), Juli Inkster (1999)
and Annika Sorenstam (2003). Yet the Aussie is unswerving when asked
whether joining the HSBC Women’s Champions roll of honour registered with
her.

“Definitely!” says the Aussie.

“It’s a quality field there. Anytime you win with that sort of field – you
can win an event another time of the year and not every one of those
players is there – when you win with that quality of field: I held off Yani
at the end and since then she has completely dominated the tour. She’s done
it for two years, really, but I take a lot of pride in that.”

What’s interesting is it’s hard to put a tag on the Singapore winners,
beyond the fact that they have all been at the very top of the women’s
game. As Jiyai Shin explains, it doesn’t seem to be the style of the
player, more just the ability to play at a world-class level for four
demanding days.

“Ai and me, we’re a pretty similar game type. Karrie plays quite safely and
Lorena plays aggressively, so we’re all a little different. The LPGA Tour
has a lot of long hitters and the course is pretty long, but you need
consistency. It’s got really narrow fairways, lots of bunkers, pretty tough
greens: it’s a good course for consistent players,” Shin says of the highly
regarded Tanah Merah Country Club’s Garden Course.

The runners-up over the years also defy a stereotype as golfers, but do
have a common trait. Chie Arimura, who fought Webb all the way last year,
is described by caddies on the Japan tour as mentally tougher than any
other player out there. Cristie Kerr, runner-up to Ai in 2010, happily
calls herself as “a scrapper, a mudder and a grinder”. Annika needs no
introduction, while Katherine Hull, pipped by Shin in 2009, thrives in a
battle.

“I agree, they’re tough players,” says Shin.

“They’re all good players. They all hit good iron shots and have good
control over their second shots. They really focus only on their own game.”

*What’s Luck Got to Do with It?*

While the tournament doesn’t seem to favour any particular aspect of the
game – despite the length of Tanah Merah, it certainly can’t be described
as a long hitter’s haven – there is a consensus that it does bring out the
best from the best.

“I think so. You have to have good skill and a good mentality to win the
tournament. You can’t be lucky and win that tournament; you have to play
good for four whole days,” says Tseng.

Her statement, that there will never be a lucky winner, is greeted with
all-round agreement.

“That’s true. The golf course is difficult enough; it’s like a Major
tournament,” Miyazato concurs.

“I agree. If you miss a shot, your next shot is a tough shot,” says Shin.

“We play great golf courses around the world, but on some holes you can
miss a shot and it’ll come back and you can escape. When you miss a shot a
Tanah Merah you lose a shot, so we have to hit good shots all the time. For
me, it’s fun!”

England’s Karen Stupples, who won the 2004 Women’s British Open at
Sunningdale by starting her final round with an eagle and albatross in
successive holes, is another to wholly back Yani’s point of view.

“That’s absolutely right. It’s about quality shots. You can’t get away with
having a lucky bounce and banking it onto the green, because if you miss
the green the chances are it’s going to bounce into some trouble. Kicking
off a mound and bouncing onto the green doesn’t happen there. She’s right.
You’ve got to hit good drives, good shots and you’ve got to golf your ball;
that’s the bottom line,” declares the 38-year-old from Kent.

Further proof to support the argument comes from the fact that every winner
of the HSBC Women’s Champions has had multiple wins in the season of their
Singapore triumph. Karrie doubled up in her next outing to take the RR
Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. In 2010, Ai had four other LPGA wins and a
domestic Major at the Japan Women’s Open. Jiyai claimed two other titles
and the Rolex Rookie of the Year award as well as a win on the Japan LPGA,
while Lorena went wild in 2008, winning seven events in total, including a
Major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship during a spell of four wins in four
successive weeks.

*Not a Game of Perfect*

That’s not to say all the winners have played perfectly. Jiyai Shin was one
over par after two rounds in 2009 when she headed to the range and found a
fix: it worked. The next morning she started her third round with almost
no-one watching her, but by the time she had completed back-to-back rounds
off 66 she had everyone’s undivided attention.

Karrie Webb’s win was based on one part of her game working brilliantly and
that perhaps helped her believe in the rest.

“It was one of those events where my short game was probably the best weeks
I’ve had, especially in the last five or six years. My ball striking I
wouldn’t say was my best, but under the gun, even when it was a little
erratic, I hit some great shots and trusted myself. I hadn’t won on the
LPGA for a couple of years and I think I always felt I had to be at my best
to win; I took away from that week that I didn’t have to be 110 per cent to
win. I just need to find a way to get it in the hole,” she says, echoing
what Karen Stupples means when she uses the phrase “golf your ball”.

In contrast, Ai killed the course with consistency in 2010, carding three
69s in her four rounds.

“I’d won the first event in Thailand, so I felt good about my game at that
time. I just tried to make simple plays; trying to hit the fairway and
trying to hit the greens. That golf course is always in good shape, but the
greens are really difficult. You need to make sure you know where you’re
going to hit your second shot. You need to be really smart on the golf
course. I played really well. My putting was really good all week. I always
remember the 16th, the short par four: I made eagle hitting driver to a
back pin, getting on the front and making the putt. I played really good
the whole week, really solid,” Ai said.

The Japanese star has little doubt as to the stand-out winning performance
of the four.

“Lorena shot 17 under or something?” she asks.

It was actually 20 under par.

“That’s ridiculous!” she declares.

“I think shooting 10 under par on that golf course is really good. I played
with her when she won the tournament and she was playing totally different
golf. It looked so easy. Annika finished second, but Lorena was so solid
and Annika couldn’t touch her!” Ai adds.

That win becomes even more impressive when one considers the context.
Lorena had risen to number one in April 2007 when Annika was struggling
with ruptured and bulging discs in her neck. By the start of 2008 Annika
had announced her return to fitness and not just verbally; she won the SBS
Open in Hawaii and 10 days later, with Lorena opening her season in
Singapore, it was on! Annika beat the rest of the field, but was a massive
11 shots behind Lorena’s winning total.

*A Chess Match*

So what is it about Tanah Merah’s Garden Course that tests the best in
women’s golf? It starts with the fiendish mind of Phil Jacobs and his 2004
redesign. The end result is a course where the current world number one
says you have to think several shots ahead and there is hardly a shot out
there that allows you to relax.

“Maybe for tap-in putts! All the other shots you have to think in a
different way and you have to think about what your strategy is, because it
might cost you when you get to your second shot or third shot. You’re
always thinking ahead about what you’re going to do. It’s a really fun
course to play,” says Yani.

“You play all the 14 clubs in your bag. Even though you’re using all 14
clubs, you still have to hit a lot of different shots. There are different
winds; all the challenges make you think and make you think you’re enjoying
the tournament and having fun with the challenges of the course. It doesn’t
feel stressful. You have to have the challenge and some stress, but that’s
why it’s so much fun.”

For Karen Stupples, one of the things that stands out is the number of
times you find yourself with nowhere to make a ‘good’ mistake.

“There are some holes you play and you think ‘where is the out?’ and there
is no out. Typically a golf hole has an out – one side or another that is
favourable to a miss. There are some holes where there is nowhere to miss
it. That’s a bit brutal! It’s like the 17th at Sawgrass; there’s no get
out! There’s a tiny little bridge, but that’s it. You’ve got to bring it!”
says the Englishwoman.

“There are some holes that are incredibly challenging, like 10. Last year,
1 and 10 were incredibly tough holes. You’re going in there with four
irons; there are not too many courses that we go into with four irons with
elevated greens and bunkers or water.”

For Jiyai, the enjoyment comes from the way Tanah Merah tests everything
you’ve got.

“It’s a really strong course for the women: long distance, tight golf
course, firm greens. So we need really good ball control with every club.
We need the whole skills. It’s pretty tough because the greens are mostly
elevated above the fairway, so if you miss, the ball is going a long way,”
she explains, adding that her duel with Katherine Hull in the final round
three years ago shows how slim the margin is for error.

“Katherine and me, she made only one mistake, but it made a big difference.
She played good and could have made a lower score, but if you make one
mistake it can lose you a lot of strokes, easily. You have to focus each
and every shot. Number 18 is pretty tough. If you lead by one shot, you can
easily lose one or two there. You have to really focus. It’s easy to make
bogey or double-bogey. So nobody knows before the finish.”

*Sheer Willpower*

All those factors demand a level of resolve that Na Yeon Choi, currently
the highest rated Korean in the official rankings, believes plays into the
hands of the women at the top of the global game.

“We have to have really good course management on that course. The top
players never give up and always do their best until the last hole on
Sunday, and the top players get better results because of that,” adds the
winner of the 2010 LPGA Official Money List.

In a nutshell, it’s a course that demands you get into the designer’s head
and understand the questions he’s posing. In Phil Jacobs own words, he does
everything from test the golfer’s self-discipline to “constantly have that
question in a player’s mind: ‘If I’m going to miss it, where should I miss
it?’” And in the case of the hardest holes, he tests their game to breaking
point.

“It asks you to miss in the right places and to be aggressive when you can
be, and I think I did a good job of that,” says Webb of last year’s victory.

“When I missed greens, I missed in places where I could get up and down.
With my putting that week, I didn’t give myself 12 or 13 unbelievably great
birdie opportunities each day. I gave myself six or seven and probably made
five of them. I just took advantage of the opportunities I had. It was just
about getting the ball in the hole.”

Webb reckons that all the factors – a great course, a great field enjoying
their entire week at the time of year, when everyone is raring to go – is
what has combined to produce the almost unparalleled list of victors… that
with the more unusual challenge of the holes that run along the side of
Changi Airport.

“I think with the quality of the field, you’re bound to get a good winner
and it’s the start of the year, so it’s whoever is ready to go straight out
of the blocks. It’s whoever is ready mentally to overcome those things and
to overcome not making that birdie on the first day, and the heat and the
wind and the planes, and all of that,” she explains

Stupples, however, feels the final preparations for the tournament – the
speeding up of the greens, the growing in of the rough and the other
adjustments made to take something a weekend warrior can survive, and morph
it into a monster – play a big part, together with the fact that the most
successful players make more minor adjustments during the winter break.

“They set it up particularly well. It’s a tough, quality golf course,
particularly that early in the season. You’ve got to be ready to play and
typically you’ll find that the quality players will always be ready to go.
That’s what you’re finding there,” she explains.

“They’re ready for it. They’ve had a very good season the year before, so
they’re coming off good finishes, so the confidence is already pretty high.
They’ve done a little bit of maintenance work over the winter, but they
haven’t had to do swing overhauls or any of that crap. They’re ready to go.
They’re primed. All they have to do is go and play a quality golf course,
which is what it is. You have to hit good shot after good shot after good
shot, make good putt after good putt. That’s what the course does for you
and that’s why you get the winners you do there.”

*Digging the Vibe*

Another of the factors seems to be the feeling of the whole week. To
understand that, one has to remember just how many weeks of the year these
players spend on the road and, especially for the internationals, how much
time they’re away from their real homes. It’s also worth bearing in mind
just how hard women golfers have had to fight over the years to establish
their tour and to be taken seriously in a sport where, in certain parts of
the world, to this day women golfers aren’t always welcomed.

So when Singaporeans throw open their arms and the red carpet is both
literally and metaphorically rolled out, it’s universally appreciated.

“I love the tournament atmosphere, too. It’s very special for everything.
Very organized and the people are very nice. Because the tournament
atmosphere is so good, that’s why everyone is playing so good,” says Ai,
referring as much to what is available away from the golf course as to what
they get on it.

“The hotel is really nice and you can go shopping or do whatever you like.
That’s really special as well. That tournament is almost too good!” she
exclaims.

“It is a terrific event. Every which way, it’s top class!” says Stupples,
who appreciates some of the “home” comforts all the more having gambled her
house, furniture and car to move to the States in a bid to make it on the
LPGA at the start of her career.

“I love Singapore! I feel very comfortable in Singapore. With my British
background, how could you not feel comfortable in Singapore? The sockets
are UK sockets. There’s a kettle in the room and you can make a cup of tea…
even if the weather is a little warmer. You’ve got Raffles just across the
road and Marks & Spencers! It feels very comfortable. I love Marks &
Spencers! I’m old now, what can I say?”

The answer to Stupples rhetorical question is ‘lots’. We leave her as she
enters into a charming monologue about all the reasons why she would be the
perfect person for the British retailer to sponsor.

*Who’s Next?*

If you start asking who is most likely to be the next to add their name to
the prestigious list, one shouldn’t overlook the chances of the event
producing its first back-to-back champion. Karrie Webb has an unusually
strong record going back as the title-holder, despite the fact that
conventional wisdom suggests it is one of the harder things to do in golf.

“I’ve always enjoyed it. I obviously played the best there last year. I
always feel it gives me an advantage: it gives me good vibes going into the
event. I enjoy it,” says Webb, whose CV* *backs her up.

Among the Aussie’s multitude of triumphs are repeat wins at the US Women’s
Open title in 2000 and 2001, as well as The Office Depot tournament in
Florida, Washington State’s Safeco Classic and at two very differently
named editions of an event at Murrells Inlet in South Carolina.  At the
Australian Ladies Masters in her native Queensland, she monopolized the
trophy from 1998 to 2001, and more recently won the MFS Women’s Australian
Open title in 2007 and 2008.

Given that an HSBC Women’s Champions victory has more often than not been
the early signal as to who the year’s dominant player will be, Na Yeon Choi
might be a contender after a year of constant English lessons. The
difference it has made to this engaging, but previously shy and nervous
24-year-old is heart-warming. With her multiple wins in 2009 and 2010 and
the fact that last year she was close to Yani’s levels in making the top 10
in over half of her events in 2011, the more outgoing Na Yeon could be set
for a career year, simply because her new-found language skills have made
her life less stressful.

“I wasn’t scared, but I think I was uncomfortable. If I was walking through
the clubhouse and someone was smiling at me, I would worry about what they
were about to say to me. I didn’t have the confidence with my English and
that was why I seemed uncomfortable with maybe the LPGA players and with
all the fans. I’m a lot more comfortable with American people or with Asian
people who are speaking English. I have fans on facebook from Singapore,
Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand; I like it! It’s made me a
better player I think, a more confident player!” she reveals.

The most logical choice, however, is the most confident player of all: Yani
Tseng.

Third behind Webb and Arimura last year, Yani has turned into a winning
machine. She now understands that to add the HSBC Women’s Champions to her
rapidly increasing list of titles she has to find a balance between the
self-styled “Birdie Machine” approach that helped her become the youngest
player ever, male or female, to win five Majors and being more selective
about when she attacks.

“Being more patient is better, playing smart. Some of the holes are
sometimes really hard to make birdie. You can still be aggressive, but
sometimes you have to play smart, too,” she says.

“I’m getting closer and closer. I was pretty close last year! I played well
and did my best. Everyone wants to win, but it’s not like I’m playing bad.
This year I have a chance, because I know the course better, better than
the last four years. I know how the strategy is on the golf course and how
to play on the golf course. I’m looking forward to playing this year,
because it’s a fun course and it’s a very good challenge.”

 

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