By Tim Maitland
The world's top golfers are, at times, a travel-weary group; spending sometimes as much as 30 or even 40 weeks of the year on the road. Despite that, the stars of the women's game are eagerly anticipating arriving in the Lion City for next week's HSBC Women's Champions.
The world number six Angela Stanford, the hottest player on the planet at the moment having won three of her last seven tournaments, says she's counting the hours before she makes the short hop from this week's Honda LPGA Thailand.
"I can't wait to get to Singapore. I love Singapore," exclaimed the 31-year-old American who, by her own admission, is one of the least enthusiastic travellers on the tour.
"It's one of my favourite countries. They take care of us. Every time I've been to Singapore the people have seen so nice, I've really enjoyed being there. Some of us are a long way from home and for me to be excited this far from home is a big deal. I'm a Texan, one of those Texans. I'm a homebody."
Japanese superstar Ai Miyazato, who many tour insiders are predicting to return to winning form this year after a dramatic slump in 2007 and the first half of 2008, is equally as enthused about the tournament.
"I love it!" she declared, adding that, as an Asian on the LPGA, the US$2 million event feels like her Major.
"It is! Asia's my home. I feel more comfortable here. Especially as Singapore is such a good place. Last year was my first time in Singapore; it's so beautiful, not only the golf, the town, the hotels, everything!"
World number 18 Katherine Hull who, together with Stanford, is one of the fastest improvers on the LPGA, described next week's HSBC line-up, which organizers say is the greatest ever assembled in Asia, as one of the best of the year.
"It's a world-class field. It's stronger than some of the Majors we play. Some of the Majors are Open Championships, so you don't get the concentration of quality like this," said Hull, the winner of the ANZ Masters in her home state of Queensland.
"It's awesome that the girls come all this way to support the event. We get treated really well, so that's a bonus. The golf course is awesome. It's nice to have this strong a field this early in the year."
Stanford, the winner of the season-opening SBC Open in Hawaii as well as the Bell Micro LPGA Classic and the Lorena Ochoa Invitational at the end of last year, echoed Hull's enjoyment of the Tanah Merah Country Club set-up.
"I like the course. I like it a lot. It's fun to play. It gives you chances to score, but then you also have to play smart at times," she explained.
"I love courses that are scoreable but are also a challenge. You have to be smart to play it. I really like it! There are a couple of holes that are tough for me; holes where you have to hit it higher and my ball flight is lower than most I guess. It's tough for me but all fun. All in all, I can't wait to play it."
Miyazato, a 15-time winner on the Japanese ladies tour despite still being only 23-years-old, was even more enthusiastic about the lay-up.
"Oh, I love that course," she cried.
"Last year it was in such great shape. I think it was the toughest course I've ever played. I can't wait to play again. The greens are tough, they have so many hills; they're really undulating. The fairways are a little tight. They've got everything: tight fairways and difficult greens and long par fours and the par fives are long distance."
Ironically, one of the players most familiar with Singapore as a place will be the least familiar with the course. World number two Yani Tseng was a two-time winner of the SICC Junior Championships, but has never played Tanah Merah. The 20-year-old from Taiwan revealed she has been asking all her friends among the Singapore golfers to tell her about the TMCC Garden Course, because winning the HSBC Women's Champions would be such a poignant triumph in a place she refers to as her second home.
"It would feel really special, especially being in Singapore. It would be my first LPGA win in Asia and that would feel really special. I can't wait to win another tournament. I can't wait to win another championship. I'm ready for the day… the excitement of competing with the best players. Everybody will be there, so I'm looking forward to it," said the winner of the second Major of 2008; the McDonald's LPGA Championship.
As for the eventual winner, almost everyone in the LPGA's traveling circus considers the defending champion Lorena Ochoa the player to beat after she demolished last year's field to win by 11 shots to start a spectacular run of five wins in six tournaments. Katherine Hull believes Ochoa becomes even more dangerous because her second half of the season didn't live up to the lofty standards the world number one set herself earlier in the year.
"I think she's probably very determined to get off to a good start this year because I think she would have liked to have won at the end of the season in 08, but she was just a little frazzled. I think she's probably made sure she has rested a bit more in the off season and obviously she's pretty happy right now being newly engaged, so she's got some good things going on and anyone as determined and skilled as she is always going to be hard to beat. I would say she would be chomping at the bit," Hull explained.
Angela Stanford is also a name that is mentioned frequently, although she herself reckons that after the "obvious" players like Lorena Ochoa and Paula Creamer, Australian Hall-of-Famer Karrie Webb is a likely contender.
"Webbie! You always have to worry about Webbie!" she declared.
Polling the LPGA players and caddies for possible surprise winners conjures up names like those of Hull and Miyazato, but also some of the veterans of the women's game. Hull herself picked another Hall-of-Famer from the endless list of stars in the field.
"I wouldn't be surprised by Juli Inkster early on, I think she's had a good off-season and she's got a great shot game. If she get's the putter going… yeah!" said the Aussie, pointing out that the American got herself in contention several times last year and is overdue in the winner's circle.
Meanwhile Stanford expects 1998 Kraft Nabisco Championship winner Pat Hurst to play out of her skin after the frustration of not getting into the field in Pattaya this week.
"Pat was first alternate in Thailand and she didn't get in. She might be hungry. She came all this way and you want to play. If I were her I'd be chomping at the bit. Pat Hurst; she's my outsider!" Stanford said before remembering how Hurst has the left-to-right game that will suit many of Tanah Merah's doglegs.
"She does! She makes a lot of birdies too. She's going to make a mistake or two, but Pat's going to make a lot of birdies!"
As for the sponsors themselves, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan said he couldn't say who will win, but can say what will win.
"It's going to take a world-class performance!" Morgan declared.
"I'm not saying that because it's the world's local bank's event either. It's going to take a world-class performance because the field is so incredibly strong that to finish at the top of the leaderboard after four rounds is going to take a display of absolutely top-quality golf."
Topics: HSBC Women's Champions