RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA | There was something different about Amy Boulden and her three colleagues who attended the men’s Saudi International Open at the beginning of February. Courtesy of Saudi Golf, the four had been invited to play in the pro-am, to practise for their upcoming Saudi women’s event and to give clinics to Saudi schoolgirls for whom sport has only recently been added to the curriculum.
In the past, the majority of LET players would have shied away from spending time at a men’s tournament; they would have felt like the poor relations, what with their own tour being a somewhat skeletal affair compared to the men’s and their prize money accordingly paltry. That week, though, the four women were walking tall and practising with all the zeal and swish you would expect of a group of talented professionals. Boulden apart, they otherwise consisted of Camilla Lennarth, Isabella Deilert and Rachel Drummond, all of whom can finally see a future for their LET.
Thanks to the joining of forces between the LPGA and their own organisation, these LET players and their colleagues now have a 2020 tour boasting 24 tournaments with a 25th - a mixed event - about to be announced. Meantime, the prize money for the year will be an all-time high of €18 million.
On top of their playing credentials, the four were disarmingly professional, introducing themselves all round with smiles and handshakes, and generally serving as the best of ambassadors for their €1 million Saudi Ladies International (takes place from March 19-22).
Boulden and her friends said that the good news about their improved lot had not really sunk in until they saw their new schedule on a good old-fashioned piece of paper. Lennarth and Deilert, the two Swedes in the group, pointed to the two new Swedish events on the calendar. “This is a great time for us,” they agreed. “We’re so proud.”
Yet nothing had appealed more to them all than how the new arrangements - worked out by Mike Whan from the LPGA Tour, as well as Marta Figueras-Dotti and Alex Armas from the LET - offer the LET contingent a pathway to the LPGA. Whan himself had deemed this crucial on the grounds that the LPGA’s Epson Tour, in his eyes, is not the ideal steppingstone for those from far afield. “I have often thought that the overseas girls would be better off playing closer to home at that stage of their development,” he said. “It can make for a pretty lonely existence.”
Boulden, now 26 and the winner at the LET’s Final Qualifying School which took place at the beginning of this year, could identify with that. The daughter of Simon Boulden, who served as the professional at Maesdu GC in Wales for thirty years and more, had the best of amateur credentials. She had played in the junior Ryder and Solheim Cup besides being a member of the winning GB&I Curtis Cup side of 2012. Going on from there, she turned professional in 2013 and made the best of starts when she finished second in her first event and went on to win the LET’s 2014 Rookie of the Year award.
But at a time when she could not have been more impatient to forge ahead, she found herself faced with a LET circuit which was shrinking by the minute. Things reached a nadir in 2017 when Georgia Hall had six non-competitive weeks in a row before turning out for Europe at the Solheim Cup in Des Moines.
To no-one’s great surprise, the above situation led to the LET parting company with Ivan Khodabakhsh, their then CEO. The hope was that the next incumbent, the endlessly conscientious Mark Lichtenhein, would put things to rights.
Lichtenhein was making progress, only it was not quick enough for girls like Boulden who were worried by how much time they were having to waste on the kind of second jobs they needed to stay financially afloat. Boulden, for her part, was able to divide her spare time between working in the clubhouse at Maesdu and helping out in the professional’s shop, while she also signed on for as many company days as she could and did the odd stint as a Sky commentator.
Amid her growing desperation, this talented soul repaired to the 2019 Epson Tour and it was here, at the end of one concentrated eight-week spell in which she had nothing to show for her efforts, that she was to the point of throwing in the towel. “I’d had enough,” she said. “I remember ringing my mum. She wanted me to come home and I wanted to be back with the family and back playing on the European Tour.”
She hurried home to catch the end of the 2019 LET season where, probably predictably in the circumstances, she failed to collect the two top-10 finishes she needed to hang fast to her LET card. All of which meant she had to attend the LET’s Final Qualifying School at the start of this year. “I tried not to let anyone know I was going because it was such a dire situation,” she said.
By way of preparation for the school, Amy followed some excellent advice as to how she should fill her worn-out self with positive thoughts: “I talked to myself all the time and the quality of what I was saying brought out the best in my game.” She had a closing 68 to win Final Qualifying by three shots.
After that, there was the joy of making plans for the months ahead.
It wasn’t all about the mouth-watering schedule. For the first time in years, she was able to get properly organised. “Before,” she explained, “there were just too many TBAs [To Be Announced] on the schedule. Some of them happened, but seldom in time to be able to get affordable flights.”
One way and another, Boulden’s original dream of playing on the LPGA Tour has come back to life, while those positive thoughts are continuing to flow as freely as her swing.
“I don’t see” she said, “why the best golf of my career shouldn’t lie ahead of me.”