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Golf - 14. February 2008.

ASEAN invites to guide schoolgirl through HSBC Women's Champions

Last week HSBC used its two sponsor invites to include 34-year-old Malaysian Siew-Ai Lim and 25-year-old Thai player Virada Nirapathpongporn in the elite field of champions from across the globe at its US$2 million event. In the meantime they've asked the pair, the ASEAN region's highest rated players on the Rolex Rankings, to help the winner of last month's local qualifying tournament get the most from the experience of playing alongside superstars such as world number one Lorena Ochoa and LPGA Hall of Fame member Annika Sorenstam.

"I think it's great!" declared Siew-Ai, who has been playing on the LPGA since 1999.

"She'll only ever have seen these players on TV, so it's hard to imagine that they can be your friends. I had the same problem when I was a rookie. I'd be "wow, that's Nancy Lopez, the queen of women's golf" or "whooaa! That's Karrie Webb sat there!" It's daunting at first. Someone closer to home is not as intimidating. We're Asians. We're neighbours. When you're talking to someone who is from your neck of the woods it's less overwhelming."

Virada, who, like Siew-Ai, majored in Psychology in the United States has also pledged to help Amelia,

particularly with the mental aspects of taking her place in the Tanah Merah field that includes every LPGA winner from 2007, every Major winner from the past three years and 19 of the world's top 20 players.

"Most people would be like Tweetie Bird in a big city. She'll turn up at a course she knows, but with all the signs, the billboards and all the people - all looking a lot more serious - that can be quite overwhelming. At a tournament everyone is on the range or the practice greens working on their game. People look serious! We're competing! We've got our game faces on!," said Virada, whose own game face got her a top-20 finish at last week's ANZ Australian Ladies Masters on Australia's Gold Coast; a result that would have been even better after two successive 69s except for the fact that the birdies dried up on the final day.

"Hopefully I can help her calm down," said Virada, who is known to everyone on the LPGA as "Oui".

"If she feels nervous I can tell her that even the greatest players feel nervous. Believe it or not, everyone feels the same way. Her hands will probably shake. Her knees will probably shake. But, everyone goes through it. I'll tell her to think of her tempo, to take a deep breath. Long smooth breaths don't make it go away, but they do help. I remember my first event outside my country – even these days at Majors I still get it – I tell myself not to freak out, that it's not worth it because I know I'll survive.

"If she has any questions I'll help as much as I can. I'll try and play a practice round with her too. It's a great idea to have us be there for her so she doesn't feel all alone," Virada added.

In Virada and Siew-Ai, Amelia, who celebrates her 16th birthday on Sunday (17th Feb), has some considerable experience to call upon. Although neither has won on the world's leading women's tour, both have recorded notable results on the LPGA. The Kuala Lumpur-born Siew-Ai had a career best runner-up finish in the 2004 Kellog-Keebler Classic and was 10th in 2007's Michelob Ultra Open, while 25-year-old Virada has a 5th-placed finish from the 2006 LPGA Corning Classic on her resume.

By encouraging its two invited players to share their accumulated wisdom, Giles Morgan, HSBC Head of Sponsorship, says the bank has tried to once again show that its investment in golf has a top-to-bottom approach.

"By using our sponsor's invites to include the top ASEAN players and then engaging these players in assisting and guiding Amelia we're creating a vital strand in our web which starts by introducing hundreds of schoolchildren to the sport through our local grassroots programmes and leads, through the region's leading players towards a possible career as a professional and ultimately to a life on the world's leading golf tours," Morgan explained.

In addition to helping the young Singaporean at the event, Siew-Ai says she'll offer any guidance she can to Amelia should she decide to try and follow her into the professional ranks.

"Me, "Oui" and Jennifer Rosales are really the pioneers for this region. We've charted a course that the younger ASEAN players can follow," she said. "When I was trying to get to the LPGA I didn't have a clue where to go next. It was trial and error then. We've done the whole pioneer "go-west-young-man" thing. If they look at our careers they can see the steps we took. We know the struggles and obstacles junior golfers in this region face because we've been there."

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