Matt Cooper previews the Vic Open, where home hope Hannah Green can go well along with a rejuvenated Cristie Kerr.
The Europeans who settled in Australia some 230 years ago were often somewhat literal when it came to map-making and place-naming. Two excellent examples are the Great Sandy Desert and the town of Manly, north of Sydney, so-called because Captain Arthur Phillip admired the manliness of the indigenous people he encountered there.
Taking a line through such thinking it would be easy to suppose that the area around the 13th Beach Golf Links, home to this week’s Vic Open, is a somewhat eclectic seaside scene because there is Sorrento in one direction and Torquay in the other.
Both, it turns out, are red herrings. There is nothing here, on the golf courses at least, that calls to mind the Amalfi Coast or the English Riviera. Instead, this stretch of the Victorian coast, at the mouth of Port Phillip Bay, rather more resembles classic linksland.
Twelve months ago Michael Hoey, winner of the 2011 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, described the Beach and Creek tracks as “class linksy courses” and there was supporting evidence on the two leaderboards to back up his observation. Scotsman David Law prevailed in the men’s tournament whilst Frenchwoman Celine Boutier triumphed in the women’s event and she, like Azahara Munoz who was tied fifth, is a past winner of the British Ladies Amateur title (Boutier at Portstewart, Munoz at Royal St David’s).
In a further similarity, Law’s manner of victory was to utilise a steady long game then tidy up when necessary with a sure touch around the greens and that’s the perfect description of Bouttier, whose sensational short game impressed a worldwide audience when she joint top-scored for Europe in her Solheim Cup debut last September.
Reliability tee-to-green allied with assured work around the greens was the recipe Hannah Green used to exceptional effect when winning twice on the LPGA in 2019, including a maiden major championship.
The Aussie has not, so far at least, displayed the consistency many of her high-class peers (including her compatriot Minjee Lee), but the confident manner with which she completed those two victories was notable and she doesn’t lack for course experience, even if a cursory look at her record on LPGA.com might suggest otherwise.
This time last year the tournament enjoyed LPGA co-sanctioning for the first time and she missed the cut following a second round of 78, but that lap was something of an exception. On tournament debut in 2017 she was sixth, a year later she was third and she was 14th following a first round 69 twelve months ago. In all, she has been inside the top 15 after eight of her ten rounds at the venue.
Prior to last year’s missed cut her only experience of the LPGA on home turf reaped three top tens from three starts in the national championship and with more in the locker, the 23-year-old can kick on from that. Add in her course form and quotes of 33/1 strike me as generous.
Of those at the head of the market Lee’s price is a little short (she’s a course winner, but also has two missed cuts in her log book) and defending champion Boutier’s form (top tens in her last two starts) has flagged her chances. The Korean stars Inbee Park, So Yeon Ryu and Jiyai Shin would be threats even with their B game, but the form of the first two is a little volatile and Shin, whilst still superb in Japan, hasn’t produced her best on the LPGA for some time.
Instead I’ll look to the future for the next pick and focus on three names relatively new to the scene who enjoyed success on the Korean LPGA last year. Ayean Cho won twice on her way to fifth in the rankings, Hee Jeong Lim three times to rank fourth, and Hye Jin Choi five times to claim number one spot.
Cho and Lim have made one start apiece at this level (38th and sixth respectively), but Choi has more experience and plenty of it has been impressive.
She was second in the 2017 US Open and 27th in the same tournament last year. More importantly, she’s got a superb record in Australia. She was 38th on debut in the Australian Open in 2016 (opening and closing with 67s), seventh in the same tournament in 2017 and second in 2018. She was also fifth in the 2016 Australian Masters and, here’s the clincher, fifth in this event three years ago.
There is some disagreement about the prices of these newcomers with some books having the three of them rated close to alike. The value, with her US Open and Australian credentials, never mind the weight of 2019 wins, lies with Choi at 25/1.
The linksy nature of this week’s test informs the next pick – that and a sense that Cristie Kerr has got the bit between her teeth again.
The 42-year-old American is a 20-time winner on the LPGA who is perhaps most famous this side of the Atlantic for cussing and narrowing her eyes at opponents in the Solheim Cup, but a couple of weeks ago she revealed to Randall Mell, who covers the LPGA for Golf Channel, that it had been her own captain Juli Inkster who was on the wrong end of her ire during the Gleneagles match.
Or rather, Kerr was chuntering about Inkster at home, furious that she’d not been given the call to join the team as a wildcard. A few weeks later she was doing TV commentary in the end-of-year Tour Championship and her frustrations escalated.
“I’m fired up,” she told Mell. “I feel like people have written me off, and they shouldn’t do that. I’m not done. I’m definitely recommitted. I’m hungry, probably more than I have been in the last four or five years.”
In the 21st century Kerr has completed 13 Women’s British Opens on the linksland and never missed a cut. Nine of those results were top 20s and three top fives. She’s also finished fourth and 11th in two Scottish Opens by the sea. All of those fields were stronger than this week's.
The links clues and motivation are all well and good, but without a sniff of form it would be a little pie in the sky. However, she opened the season with 11th in the Gainbridge LPGA, carding an improved score with every lap. Just one of these factors would not be enough, two a stretch, but the three together and a price in excess of 50/1 is more than enough to prompt a play.
Final selection was very nearly Anne Van Dam, who’s played plenty of good golf on linksland, but who might be a little restricted by the course. Instead, add Japan’s Yui Kawamoto who progressed with startling consistency from the Qualifying School in November, carding 70 or 71 in seven of her eight rounds for the ninth card.
She turned professional at the end of 2018 and in her first full season on the Japanese LPGA notched ten top six finishes including a maiden win. After confirming progression to the main stage she wasted no time adding to her portfolio, grabbing eighth in the Gainbridge LPGA two weeks ago (she was also 16th in the LPGA co-sanctioned Japan Classic in November).
Women’s golf in Japan is huge and there is consequently high excitement ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The fight to represent to the home nation is one punters might want to keep in mind over the next few months.
It’s also a rather more simple truth that some books are wary of her threat this week and others are less concerned. Prices above 50/1 look handy.
Posted at 1125 GMT on 04/02/20
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