Gulyanamitta, known as Russy or by her childhood nickname Fon (which means ‘rain’ in Thai), earned her place by finishing as the highest ranked South East Asian golfer at the start of this year (146th on the Rolex World Rankings).
Last year HSBC used both their invitations to include the highest-rated ASEAN players – Virada Nirapathpongporn of Thailand and Malaysia’s Siew Ai-Lim – and Giles Morgan, the bank’s Group Head of Sponsorship says they were eager to continue to keep a place open for the region’s top golfer, because of the benefit it gives to the girls currently involved in the HSBC Youth Golf Programme in Singapore and to the winner of the local qualifier.
“By inviting Russy we are creating a bridge; it helps for the local girls to see that someone just like them is living the life they aspire to,” said Morgan. “The HSBC Women’s Champions is an inspiration to the girls currently going through our grassroots scheme. It brings the dream of a professional career within touching distance. Although Yani Tseng has already promised her help we’ll also be asking Russy to help mentor the local qualifier; to help her find her feet, to help her stay as relaxed as possible and to help her perform at her best during what we hope will be a week she remembers for the rest of her life.”
The 32-year-old Gulyanamitta almost made it to last year’s tournament as a tournament winner, finishing just behind Annika Sorenstam at the 2008 SBS Open in Hawaii in a career-best tie for second.
“I had really wanted to qualify directly and I came so close last year. I’m really pleased to have been invited. It’s an honour to be part of such a great field – it’s world class – and for me, this is my Major. It’s the biggest event I can possibly play in this close to home,” said Gulyanamitta, an individual and team gold medallist at the 1999 SEA Games (South East Asian Games).
Morgan took the unusual measure of revealing that the world’s local bank had a contingency plan to also invite China’s Feng Shanshan, had she not qualified by right for the tournament, in recognition of the impact her success on the LPGA last year has had on the girls in HSBC’s China Junior Golf Program.
“I wouldn’t normally discuss what we may or may not have done because that’s not the way we do business as a bank, but I want to say this because it’s a mark of respect for what Shanshan has done for the youngsters on our programme in China,” Morgan explained.
“Feng’s achievements in becoming the first Chinese woman to earn her place on the LPGA and her performance in her rookie season have energized the girls playing in the HSBC National Junior Championship events. She has given them a confidence and an increased enthusiasm that can only help more Chinese girls to follow her onto the international tours.”
The second sponsor’s invite went to Shiho Oyama, the highest-ranked player in the world not to have already booked a berth in Singapore.
The 31-year-old Oyama, who won the Japan LPGA’s Money Ranking in 2006 ending Yuri Fudoh’s run of six consecutive titles, decided to adventure onto the LPGA, winning her tour card at the Q School at the end of last year.
“Shiho is a world-class player and is more than capable of being competitive in the lofty company she’ll be keeping at the HSBC Women’s Champions. We decided to help her because we admire the journey she has decided to undertake,” Morgan explained.
“As the world’s local bank we know how rewarding it can be to change cultures and how understanding the differences in thinking, in approach and in traditions can improve you as an individual. Shiho’s reasons for changing tours are as much to do with that personal voyage as they are with golf and we wanted to help her on her way.”
Oyama, an 11-time winner on the JLPGA who attracted a crowd of around 30 reporters and photographers when she left Narita Airport to begin preparing for the LPGA’s season opener in Hawaii last week, responded with unconcealed delight when she learned her request had been granted.
“I’m so happy, so happy! Thank you!” she said.
“I’m leaving my old life behind and want to learn how to play on the LPGA as quickly as possible. I think it is a very good chance for me to do well because I will feel much more comfortable and more at home playing in Singapore than I will when I first get to America.
“I’ve been playing on the Japan Tour for eight years and I wanted to broaden my horizons,” she continued.
“I want to be a world player not just a Japanese player. I want to be part of the world. I like western culture and I want to learn more. Learning different ways of thinking, learning different viewpoints, leaning different attitudes, it’s all so refreshing. In some ways it’s like starting a new life. I’m the old rookie, but I feel like my first day in college.”
Oyama will instantly be recognized as one of the fastest guns in the west. Her reputation for being a quick player is so great that one of the JLPGA’s stars recently joked that she could hit her drive before Oyama and by the time she’d reached down to pick up her tee Shiho’s ball would already be bouncing down the fairway.
Inspired to take up golf when she fell in love with a Japanese TV soap opera about a professional golfer, Oyama has been frantically trying to improve her English to help he make the transition.
FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS