Why the #1s?
The HSBC Women's Champions returns to Singapore in February, with LPGA legend Karrie Webb defending the title as the latest name in a roll of honour that is almost unrivalled in recent years. Tim Maitland talks to the stars of the women's game to work out why the event has only ever been won by the best of the best.
Lorena Ochoa, at her most dominant, finished streets ahead of a returning Annika Sorenstam in 2008. A year later Jiyai Shin lifted the trophy at the start of her “rookie” season (she won three LPGA events as a non-member in 2008, including a Major), as part of a relentless charge that would make her the third number one in the history of the official rankings. In 2010, Ai Miyazato held the same silverware and shortly afterwards held the number one ranking, too. Then came Karrie, who by the age of 25 had already qualified for the World Golf Hall of Fame and who, but for the Rolex Rankings only being introduced in 2006, was a number one in everything but name.
Has any other tournament consistently crowned such worthy champions in this time span? It's a question that prompts plenty of head scratching.
“Maybe Kraft is one?” ponders current world number one Yani Tseng of Taiwan.
“The British Open?” she asks, cracking up laughing because her main motivation for mentioning it is the fact that she's won it the past two seasons.
Of the Majors, the Ricoh Women's British Open might be the nearest comparison to the HSBC Women's Champions roll of honour, with Yani winning in 2011 and 2010 while Jiyai claimed it in 2008, but 2009 champion Catriona Matthew might be the first to point out that she doesn't quite belong in the conversation if we're talking about the greats in the game. The same applies for Stacy Lewis and Brittany Lincicome, winners of the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2011 and 2009 respectively, in between wins for Yani (2010) and Lorena (2008). The LPGA Championship also comes close with Cristie Kerr in 2010 and Yani in 2011 and 2008, but 2009 winner Anna Nordqvist hasn’t yet thrust her name into the highest echelon.
New to Major status next year, the Evian Masters won by Ai, Jiyai and Ai in the past three years comes close, and another of the Asian Spring Swing--the Honda LPGA Thailand--also belong in the conversation, with Yani, Ai and Lorena its most recent champions.
One can talk oneself around in circles debating the argument. The certainty is that in short order the HSBC Women's Champions has become something special.
“It's one of the best tournaments we ever play!” is Yani's take.
“I think the HSBC event is the biggest LPGA event in Asia!” is Jiyai Shin's verdict.
“It's great from when we first arrive to when we leave. We get looked after very, very well. We stay in great hotels, there’s great hospitality and we play on a great challenging golf course!” declares Karrie, who has certainly earned the right to talk about greatness.
“We'd like it like that every week,” the Queensland legend adds.
Yani, like Webb, expands on her statement by citing the overall package of the tournament week, rather than purely the golf.
“It's a good one. They're all the best players in the world challenging that week. It's always very tough to win that tournament. You have to play so well to be among the great players, which is fun. It doesn't matter what your score is; it's always very enjoyable in Singapore, the hospitality there. And you know I love Singapore; I have so many good friends there. I always look forward to going back. I have so much fun and have so many good friends come,” says Tseng, last year's double Major champion, seven-time winner and Player of the Year on the LPGA with 11 total wins worldwide.
Jiyai meanwhile backs up her description of the event being Asia's best with the following explanation: “All the events are very important, but it feels like a really big tournament. It's a beautiful course and a nice city. The tournament is early in the season, and when you win it feels like a good start and it gives you confidence at the beginning of the season, too.”
Roll of Honour
The first sign that something unusual was happening in Singapore was, perhaps, when Ai Miyazato declared eight months after her 2010 win that it was “an honour” to have added her name to a list of winners that had only two others on it. At the time she was speaking as the reigning world number one.
Karrie Webb is the youngest member of an exclusive club of five other legends to have won the LPGA’s Career Grand Slam of Majors, joining Louise Suggs (1957), Mickey Wright (1962), Pat Bradley (1986), Juli Inkster (1999) and Annika Sorenstam (2003). Yet the Aussie is unswerving when asked whether joining the HSBC Women's Champions roll of honour registered with her.
“Definitely!” says the Aussie.
“It's a quality field there. Anytime you win with that sort of field--you can win an event another time of the year and not every one of those players is there--when you win with that quality of field: I held off Yani at the end and since then she has completely dominated the tour. She's done it for two years, really, but I take a lot of pride in that.”
What's interesting is it's hard to put a tag on the Singapore winners, beyond the fact that they have all been at the very top of the women's game. As Jiyai Shin explains, it doesn't seem to be the style of the player, more just the ability to play at a world-class level for four demanding days.
“Ai and me, we're a pretty similar game type. Karrie plays quite safely and Lorena plays aggressively, so we're all a little different. The LPGA Tour has a lot of long hitters and the course is pretty long, but you need consistency. It's got really narrow fairways, lots of bunkers, pretty tough greens: it's a good course for consistent players,” Shin says of the highly regarded Tanah Merah Country Club's Garden Course.
The runners-up over the years also defy a stereotype as golfers, but do have a common trait. Chie Arimura, who fought Webb all the way last year, is described by caddies on the Japan tour as mentally tougher than any other player out there. Cristie Kerr, runner-up to Ai in 2010, happily calls herself as “a scrapper, a mudder and a grinder.” Annika needs no introduction, while Katherine Hull, pipped by Shin in 2009, thrives in a battle.
“I agree, they're tough players,” says Shin.
“They're all good players. They all hit good iron shots and have good control over their second shots. They really focus only on their own game.”
What's Luck Got to Do with It?
While the tournament doesn't seem to favour any particular aspect of the game--despite the length of Tanah Merah, it certainly can't be described as a long hitter's haven--there is a consensus that it does bring out the best from the best.
“I think so. You have to have good skill and a good mentality to win the tournament. You can't be lucky and win that tournament; you have to play good for four whole days,” says Tseng.
Her statement, that there will never be a lucky winner, is greeted with all-round agreement.
“That's true. The golf course is difficult enough; it's like a Major tournament,” Miyazato concurs.
“I agree. If you miss a shot, your next shot is a tough shot,” says Shin.
“We play great golf courses around the world, but on some holes you can miss a shot and it'll come back and you can escape. When you miss a shot a Tanah Merah you lose a shot, so we have to hit good shots all the time. For me, it's fun!”
England's Karen Stupples, who won the 2004 Women's British Open at Sunningdale by starting her final round with an eagle and albatross in successive holes, is another to wholly back Yani's point of view.
“That's absolutely right. It's about quality shots. You can't get away with having a lucky bounce and banking it onto the green, because if you miss the green the chances are it's going to bounce into some trouble. Kicking off a mound and bouncing onto the green doesn't happen there. She's right. You've got to hit good drives, good shots and you've got to golf your ball; that's the bottom line,” declares the 38-year-old from Kent.
Further proof to support the argument comes from the fact that every winner of the HSBC Women's Champions has had multiple wins in the season of their Singapore triumph. Karrie doubled up in her next outing to take the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. In 2010, Ai had four other LPGA wins. Jiyai claimed two other titles and the Rolex Rookie of the Year award as well as a win on the Japan LPGA, while Lorena went wild in 2008, winning seven events in total, including a Major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship during a spell of four wins in four successive weeks.
Not a Game of Perfect
That's not to say all the winners have played perfectly. Jiyai Shin was one over par after two rounds in 2009 when she headed to the range and found a fix: it worked. The next morning she started her third round with almost no-one watching her, but by the time she had completed back-to-back rounds off 66 she had everyone's undivided attention.
Karrie Webb's win was based on one part of her game working brilliantly and that perhaps helped her believe in the rest.
“It was one of those events where my short game was probably the best weeks I've had, especially in the last five or six years. My ball striking I wouldn't say was my best, but under the gun, even when it was a little erratic, I hit some great shots and trusted myself. I hadn't won on the LPGA for a couple of years and I think I always felt I had to be at my best to win; I took away from that week that I didn't have to be 110 per cent to win. I just need to find a way to get it in the hole,” she says, echoing what Karen Stupples means when she uses the phrase “golf your ball.”
In contrast, Ai killed the course with consistency in 2010, carding three 69s in her four rounds.
“I'd won the first event in Thailand, so I felt good about my game at that time. I just tried to make simple plays; trying to hit the fairway and trying to hit the greens. That golf course is always in good shape, but the greens are really difficult. You need to make sure you know where you're going to hit your second shot. You need to be really smart on the golf course. I played really well. My putting was really good all week. I always remember the 16th, the short par four: I made eagle hitting driver to a back pin, getting on the front and making the putt. I played really good the whole week, really solid,” Ai said.
The Japanese star has little doubt as to the stand-out winning performance of the four.
“Lorena shot 17 under or something?” she asks.
It was actually 20 under par.
“That's ridiculous!” she declares.
“I think shooting 10 under par on that golf course is really good. I played with her when she won the tournament and she was playing totally different golf. It looked so easy. Annika finished second, but Lorena was so solid and Annika couldn’' touch her!” Ai adds.
That win becomes even more impressive when one considers the context. Lorena had risen to number one in April 2007 when Annika was struggling with ruptured and bulging discs in her neck. By the start of 2008 Annika had announced her return to fitness and not just verbally; she won the SBS Open in Hawaii and 10 days later, with Lorena opening her season in Singapore, it was on! Annika beat the rest of the field, but was a massive 11 shots behind Lorena's winning total.
A Chess Match
So what is it about Tanah Merah's Garden Course that tests the best in women's golf? It starts with the fiendish mind of Phil Jacobs and his 2004 redesign. The end result is a course where the current world number one says you have to think several shots ahead and there is hardly a shot out there that allows you to relax.
“Maybe for tap-in putts! All the other shots you have to think in a different way and you have to think about what your strategy is, because it might cost you when you get to your second shot or third shot. You're always thinking ahead about what you're going to do. It's a really fun course to play,” says Yani.
“You play all the 14 clubs in your bag. Even though you're using all 14 clubs, you still have to hit a lot of different shots. There are different winds; all the challenges make you think and make you think you're enjoying the tournament and having fun with the challenges of the course. It doesn't feel stressful. You have to have the challenge and some stress, but that's why it's so much fun.”
For Karen Stupples, one of the things that stands out is the number of times you find yourself with nowhere to make a ‘good’ mistake.
“There are some holes you play and you think 'where is the out?' and there is no out. Typically a golf hole has an out--one side or another that is favourable to a miss. There are some holes where there is nowhere to miss it. That's a bit brutal! It's like the 17th at Sawgrass; there's no get out! There's a tiny little bridge, but that's it. You've got to bring it!” says the Englishwoman.
“There are some holes that are incredibly challenging, like 10. Last year, 1 and 10 were incredibly tough holes. You're going in there with four irons; there are not too many courses that we go into with four irons with elevated greens and bunkers or water.”
For Jiyai, the enjoyment comes from the way Tanah Merah tests everything you've got.
“It's a really strong course for the women: long distance, tight golf course, firm greens. So we need really good ball control with every club. We need the whole skills. It's pretty tough because the greens are mostly elevated above the fairway, so if you miss, the ball is going a long way,” she explains, adding that her duel with Katherine Hull in the final round three years ago shows how slim the margin is for error.
“Katherine and me, she made only one mistake, but it made a big difference. She played good and could have made a lower score, but if you make one mistake it can lose you a lot of strokes, easily. You have to focus each and every shot. Number 18 is pretty tough. If you lead by one shot, you can easily lose one or two there. You have to really focus. It’s easy to make bogey or double-bogey. So nobody knows before the finish.”
All those factors demand a level of resolve that Na Yeon Choi, currently the highest-rated Korean in the official rankings, believes plays into the hands of the women at the top of the global game.
“We have to have really good course management on that course. The top players never give up and always do their best until the last hole on Sunday, and the top players get better results because of that,” adds the winner of the 2010 LPGA Official Money List.
In a nutshell, it's a course that demands you get into the designer's head and understand the questions he's posing. In Phil Jacobs's own words, he does everything from test the golfer's self-discipline to “constantly have that question in a player's mind: 'If I'm going to miss it, where should I miss it?'” And in the case of the hardest holes, he tests their game to the breaking point.
“It asks you to miss in the right places and to be aggressive when you can be, and I think I did a good job of that,” says Webb of last year's victory.
“When I missed greens, I missed in places where I could get up and down. With my putting that week, I didn't give myself 12 or 13 unbelievably great birdie opportunities each day. I gave myself six or seven and probably made five of them. I just took advantage of the opportunities I had. It was just about getting the ball in the hole.”
Webb reckons that all the factors--a great course, a great field enjoying their entire week at the time of year, when everyone is raring to go--is what has combined to produce the almost unparalleled list of victors...that with the more unusual challenge of the holes that run along the side of Changi Airport.
“I think with the quality of the field, you're bound to get a good winner and it's the start of the year, so it's whoever is ready to go straight out of the blocks. It's whoever is ready mentally to overcome those things and to overcome not making that birdie on the first day, and the heat and the wind and the planes, and all of that,” she explains
Stupples, however, feels the final preparations for the tournament--the speeding up of the greens, the growing in of the rough and the other adjustments made to take something a weekend warrior can survive and morph it into a monster--play a big part, together with the fact that the most successful players make more minor adjustments during the winter break.
“They set it up particularly well. It's a tough, quality golf course, particularly that early in the season. You've got to be ready to play and typically you'll find that the quality players will always be ready to go. That's what you’re finding there,” she explains.
“They're ready for it. They've had a very good season the year before, so they're coming off good finishes, so the confidence is already pretty high. They've done a little bit of maintenance work over the winter, but they haven't had to do swing overhauls or any of that crap. They're ready to go. They're primed. All they have to do is go and play a quality golf course, which is what it is. You have to hit good shot after good shot after good shot, make good putt after good putt. That's what the course does for you and that's why you get the winners you do there.”
Digging the Vibe
Another of the factors seems to be the feeling of the whole week. To understand that, one has to remember just how many weeks of the year these players spend on the road and, especially for the internationals, how much time they're away from their real homes. It's also worth bearing in mind just how hard women golfers have had to fight over the years to establish their tour and to be taken seriously in a sport where, in certain parts of the world, to this day women golfers aren't always welcomed.
So when Singaporeans throw open their arms and the red carpet is both literally and metaphorically rolled out, it's universally appreciated.
“I love the tournament atmosphere, too. It's very special for everything. Very organized and the people are very nice. Because the tournament atmosphere is so good, that's why everyone is playing so good,” says Ai, referring as much to what is available away from the golf course as to what they get on it.
“The hotel is really nice and you can go shopping or do whatever you like. That's really special as well. That tournament is almost too good!” she exclaims.
“It is a terrific event. Every which way, it's top class!” says Stupples, who appreciates some of the “home” comforts all the more having gambled her house, furniture and car to move to the States in a bid to make it on the LPGA at the start of her career.
“I love Singapore! I feel very comfortable in Singapore. With my British background, how could you not feel comfortable in Singapore? The sockets are UK sockets. There's a kettle in the room and you can make a cup of tea...even if the weather is a little warmer. You've got Raffles just across the road and Marks & Spencers! It feels very comfortable. I love Marks & Spencers! I'm old now, what can I say?”
The answer to Stupples rhetorical question is 'lots.' We leave her as she enters into a charming monologue about all the reasons why she would be the perfect person for the British retailer to sponsor.
If you start asking who is most likely to be the next to add their name to the prestigious list, one shouldn't overlook the chances of the event producing its first back-to-back champion. Karrie Webb has an unusually strong record going back as the title-holder, despite the fact that conventional wisdom suggests it is one of the harder things to do in golf.
“I've always enjoyed it. I obviously played the best there last year. I always feel it gives me an advantage: it gives me good vibes going into the event. I enjoy it,” says Webb, whose CV backs her up.
Among the Aussie's multitude of triumphs are repeat wins at the U.S. Women's Open title in 2000 and 2001, as well as The Office Depot tournament in Florida, Washington State's Safeco Classic and at two very differently named editions of an event at Murrells Inlet in South Carolina. At the Australian Ladies Masters in her native Queensland, she monopolized the trophy from 1998 to 2001, and more recently won the MFS Women's Australian Open title in 2007 and 2008.
Given that an HSBC Women's Champions victory has more often than not been the early signal as to who the year's dominant player will be, Na Yeon Choi might be a contender after a year of constant English lessons. The difference it has made to this engaging, but previously shy and nervous 24-year-old is heart-warming. With her multiple wins in 2009 and 2010 and the fact that last year she was close to Yani's levels in making the top 10 in over half of her events in 2011, the more outgoing Na Yeon could be set for a career year, simply because her new-found language skills have made her life less stressful.
“I wasn't scared, but I think I was uncomfortable. If I was walking through the clubhouse and someone was smiling at me, I would worry about what they were about to say to me. I didn't have the confidence with my English and that was why I seemed uncomfortable with maybe the LPGA players and with all the fans. I'm a lot more comfortable with American people or with Asian people who are speaking English. I have fans on facebook from Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand; I like it! It's made me a better player I think, a more confident player!” she reveals.
The most logical choice, however, is the most confident player of all: Yani Tseng.
Third behind Webb and Arimura last year, Yani has turned into a winning machine. She now understands that to add the HSBC Women's Champions to her rapidly increasing list of titles she has to find a balance between the self-styled “Birdie Machine” approach that helped her become the youngest player ever, male or female, to win five Majors and being more selective about when she attacks.
“Being more patient is better, playing smart. Some of the holes are sometimes really hard to make birdie. You can still be aggressive, but sometimes you have to play smart, too,” she says.
“I'm getting closer and closer. I was pretty close last year! I played well and did my best. Everyone wants to win, but it's not like I'm playing bad. This year I have a chance, because I know the course better, better than the last four years. I know how the strategy is on the golf course and how to play on the golf course. I'm looking forward to playing this year, because it's a fun course and it's a very good challenge.”