The Ladies’ European Tour (LET) season is finally up and running with its first two tournaments safely in the books and last week’s Italian Open was won by an 18-year old French amateur called Lucie Malchirand (photo above), who had just won the Portuguese Amateur Championship in her previous start.
Now, it’s not unheard of for an amateur to win a professional event (Bobby Jones managed it quite regularly) but it is fairly rare and those who do triumph become members of a very exclusive club indeed. Without exception they are all already players of pedigree with several trophies and honours in their cabinets but winning at the professional level is a huge accomplishment for any amateur.
In last week’s blog I was celebrating Phil Mickelson’s sixth major victory at the age of almost 51. His first professional victory came way back in 1991 when still an amateur and 30 years later he’s still winning professional events – and majors at that. Perhaps this all lies ahead for Malchirand who has already represented her country with distinction and who played in the last Junior Solheim Cup.
She certainly doesn’t have to lift her eyes from French soil to find inspiration by the bucket-load. A role model is right there for her in her own country in the great Catherine Lacoste who stunned the golfing world with an incredible victory in the 1967 US Women’s Open, in my opinion one of the greatest-ever achievements by an amateur golfer.To date Lacoste is the only amateur winner in the championship’s 75-year history but whisper it softly, there is a slight frisson among the cognoscenti that perhaps this week will see a second amateur win the US Women’s Open which is being played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Rachel Heck, a 19-year old from Memphis, has just completed her first year at Stanford and has won six of the nine tournaments she played in her freshman year, including five in a row at the end of the season, culminating in the NCAA Individual Championship. She also won the Annika Award which is presented to the nation’s best female college golfer and set an NCAA single-season scoring record of 69.72. And – ominously for her opposition – she has already recorded a win on this year’s venue, shooting a 66 around this beast of a course. As if this wasn’t enough to keep her busy she has joined the Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) on campus and claims the discipline and life skills she has learned there are helpful to her in all walks of life including on the fairways. She says being busy with all this other stuff deflects the pressure from her on the course. “When golf is not the be-all end-all, it takes so much pressure off me. I have a thousand other things I want to do.” This scarily accomplished teenager is impressive, to say the least, but the odds are still against her. It will be fun seeing how she gets on and if she will be able to join the great Lacoste in an exclusive club of two.
Perhaps one of the most heralded amateur winners of professional events over the last few years has been New Zealander Lydia Ko, who won no fewer than four times amongst the paid ranks before being able to accept a cheque. In 2012 she became the youngest winner on the LPGA tour when she won the Canadian Open, a title she successfully defended the following year. In early 2013 she won in her home country of New Zealand to become the youngest winner of an LET event and two years later she continued adding to her string of “youngest ever to…..” accomplishments by ascending to the No 1 world ranking. Now 23 years old and with 16 wins, including two majors, under her belt it’ll be interesting to see if she sticks to her avowed intention to retire from the game at the age of 30.The player Ko superseded as the youngest winner on the LET was another amateur winner of a professional event – Amy Yang, who had won the 2006 ANZ Ladies’ Masters. Yang, South Korean by birth, took up the game at ten years of age and at 15 moved with her parents to Australia to enable her to focus on her golf. She has subsequently built a strong career which just needs a major title to elevate that description to “great.” You could argue a good case that she’s currently one of the best players never to have won a major. Now 31, she could well be moving into her prime, though admittedly it’s quite tricky to determine when women players actually hit their prime, given the incredible success some of them enjoy at a very young age.
Records from the early days of the LET are notoriously sketchy, even non-existent in many instances, so I’m relying on memory here when I think of the last amateur prior to Amy to win on the Ladies’ European Tour. If I’ve overlooked anyone – apologies, but I think that honour must go to Gillian Stewart, one of Scotland’s finest, who won the 1984 European Open at The Belfry. As with many of the other amateur winners, that victory was a portend of things to come, ushering in a very successful career in the paid ranks.We have been lifelong friends and last played golf together the day we went into our first lockdown back in March 2020. We have a few games arranged for later this month at the glorious Royal Dornoch, Brora and Skibo, to name but a few.
Can’t wait. Can’t wait to take the money!