How do the world’s top women players judge which tournaments are among the highlights of the 2011 season? The answer is long and often elusive, but one certainty is that February’s HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore is on that list. Tim Maitland tries to find out why.
There have only been five number one-ranked players in the history of the Rolex World Rankings. Three of them – Lorena Ochoa in 2008, Ji-Yai Shin in 2009 and Ai Miyazato last year - have won the HSBC Women’s Champions. The fourth, Annika Sorenstam, only played the first event and was beaten by Lorena who had already taken the top spot away from her. The fifth, Cristie Kerr of the USA, was runner-up in 2010.
How impressive is that short resume? It’s impressive enough for Miyazato to describe joining the list as “an honour”. When becoming only the third winner of a tournament is described this way by a player who, at the time of speaking, was ranked the best in the world, you have to think the event has got its mojo working.
“It is a special event,” the Japanese superstar explained.
“First of all the golf course is really difficult and it’s the perfect venue to decide who is going to be world number one. It’s a very special golf course, HSBC is always nice to us and every bit of the organising is perfect. That is why all of the champions have been great, I think.”
The burgeoning Asian swings have, in the last few years, become an increasingly important part of the women’s golf calendar. The LPGA now visits in the spring and autumn, partly because, while the onset of winter makes play impossible in the States, in Southeast Asia especially there’s no such thing as winter. Partly it’s because of Asia’s growing importance to worldwide trade and the global economy.
The crowning jewel, sandwiched between the Honda LPGA Thailand and the beginning of the main season in the continental United States, would seem to be the HSBC Women’s Champions and the test that Tanah Merah’s Garden Course provides.
“It’s honestly one of the most-talked-about and most-anticipated events of the year. There’s no question about it. Singapore is one of the premier events we play in Asia. It’s the HSBC tournament of champions and they treat us as such,” said Christina Kim, one of the LPGA’s more vocal players.
“It’s a very, very prestigious tournament. It’s one we always love going to. Whenever you think of HSBC you always think of top quality, first class service and it’s the same with the play on the course out there; you get nothing but the best and lots of excitement.”
Kim’s comments are matched by Katherine Hull, who challenged Ji-Yai Shin all the way to the wire in 2009 before finishing runner-up.
“I hold it very highly among the tournaments I’d most like to win. Sometimes you can’t put a finger on it really; there’s an aura that goes with certain events, I guess in the way that there’s an aura that surrounds certain players. You can’t classify it; it is what it is,” said the Australian winner of the 2010 Navistar LPGA Classic, before pausing to try and capture her point in words.
“The golf course is big, the driving range is big, the clubhouse is big…” she said, emphasising her point each time.
“You’ve got that massive HSBC Champions pavilion around the green on the 18th… again that’s big! The airport’s there and you’re constantly seeing big airplanes; everything’s just supersized that week! Maybe that adds to the aura of it?
“Even the hotel we stay in… it’s BIG,” she continued, even more emphatically.
“Singapore itself… everything’s just massively tall… it’s a BIG event. Even just looking at the HSBC logo: bold… all capitalized… BIG!
“I think it’s also the field – the strength of the field – and that we know we’re going against the top 50 in the world, essentially. It’s the start of the year and everyone wants to get off to a good start, especially to get a win under the belt early. The better players are usually pretty strong at the start of the year, even though some of us are shaking off the rust. You know there’s going to be a bunch of really good players, in contention, and if you can throw yourself in among that mix it’s going to be exciting. That’s what we’ve seen over the last three years,” Hull added.
There’s an adage that you’ll often hear used among the top men’s players, but that isn’t as common among the women: if you have a great tournament on a great golf course you get great champions.
Both Christina Kim and Katherine Hull responded exactly the same way when asked if that recipe applies to the Singapore event.
“Absolutely!” said Kim without a moment’s hesitation.
“Tanah Merah is a great golf course; especially coming down the last, being by the airport, dealing with the wind, it’s great! It really is without a shadow of doubt a top quality golf course and that means the top quality golfers have to bring their top quality golf.”
“Absolutely!” Hull also replied.
“Some weeks are a putting contest. That week is certainly not one of those. Tee-to-green you’ve got to be, not only hitting it well, but leaving yourself in the right spots. It takes both finesse and brawn…. or brains and brawn.”
It’s not just the players who appreciate the quality and the challenge that Tanah Merah poses. The caddies are devotees too, such as Dean Herden, the winner of the 2010 HSBC Caddie of the Year award, who has guided Ji-Yai Shin to high finishes every year (7th in 2008, 1st in 2009 and 3rd in 2010).
“I love it!” said the giant Australian.
“When they’re designing courses these days, it’s set up for long hitters. Tanah Merah if you’re long it’s great, but you’ve got to be straight. You’ve got to be on the fairway. That rough, the ball sits down in it so much, you can’t get away with being in the rough all week. You’ve got to be able to control the ball going into the greens.
“I love the course because it gives everyone in the field a chance to win; it’s great. It brings out the best in the best players. The players who have won are all superstar players. Some golf courses a few unknown players will crop up and win it because they had a good week on the putter and the course isn’t that demanding shot-wise; because it doesn’t demand great shots down the fairways and great shots into the greens. Tanah Merah has the beautiful aspect that it all starts from the tee. Only the great players are going to win around there; only the ones with great records,” Herden stated.
As for Christina Kim, at the second edition of the HSBC Women’s Champions she revealed that she personally rated it more highly than two of the LPGA’s Major Championships. Asked if she still felt that way even though it no longer offers the richest prize of the Asian events, she needed no time to think.
“I still do,” she said interrupting the question before it had even finished.
“I’m not going to say which Majors, but definitely! The golf course, the championship itself, the way that we’re treated is definitely Major calibre. In terms of the way they treat us and the way they prepare for us, they pull out all the stops. They roll out the red carpet.”
Herden put it another way, explaining that while the women of the LPGA may be professionals, they’re golfers first and foremost and they appreciate a great golf challenge more than a gigantic prize.
“You’ll find the good players will always want to come back no matter what. It’s a great event. Great players will always want to play good golf courses and they’ll always want to go back to Tanah Merah,” he explained.
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