Friday 28 October 2016

I want to be world number 1 before I turn pro

Olivia Mehaffey heads to renowned American golf stable as she plans a course to the top.

Brian Keogh

Published 18/08/2016 | 02:30

Olivia Mehaffey
Olivia Mehaffey
Olivia Mehaffey was given a warm send-off by Tandragee Golf Club members as she heads to Arizona State University to begin a new golfing adventure.

The desert isn't the best place in the world to send an Irish rose, but when you're the world No. 5 and one of the toughest competitors in the amateur game, a little bit of sunshine can only help you bloom.

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Olivia Mehaffey jetted off to America last Thursday to begin a new adventure on a golf scholarship with Arizona State University.

It's a college that's given the golfing world Phil Mickelson, Billy Mayfair, Alejandro Canizares and Paul Casey, not to mention the new kid on the block, former world No.1 amateur and PGA Tour rookie Jon Rahm, from Bilbao.

However, it's not PGA Tour stars that inspire 18-year old Mehaffey, but LPGA Tour standouts such as JoAnne Carner, Carlota Ciganda, Heather Farr, Azahara Munoz, Anna Nordqvist and Grace Park.

As a multiple championship winner, Olivia has done just about all there is to do in Europe as an individual - and even in team play she helped Great Britain and Ireland to Curtis Cup success on home soil just a few weeks ago.

The time has now come for her to spread her wings and, inspired by Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow - who are teeing it up for Ireland in the Olympic Games in Rio this week - she's hoping to follow in their footsteps and take the first step on the road to an LPGA Tour career.

"Before I go pro I want to be world No. 1," Olivia said before packing her bags and swapping the Mountains of Mourne and the damp Irish summer for the white heat of Tempe in Phoenix, Arizona.

"If you want to go pro, it can only help. I want to play a lot of majors, so if you get to world No. 1 you get into all the majors. I'd love to play in all the majors and get as much experience as I can before I turn pro," said Olivia.

A product of Tandragee Golf Club, Olivia has had a brilliant few seasons, soaring to fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking thanks to a string of victories.

A move to the famous Sun Devils at Arizona State University was the natural move and if all goes to plan, she has the game and the determination to join Leona and Stephanie and become a star on tour.

Ireland has been fortunate in recent years to see Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke capture no fewer than nine major titles.

Having won the Welsh Ladies, Irish Ladies and Irish Close Championships this year alone and finished third at the European Individual Championship in Sweden, it seems like an eternity ago that a six-year-old Olivia, now a plus five handicap, teed it up with her father Philip and her old brother Luke at Tandragee for the first time.

"My dad and my brother played and I have always been quite sporty," she explained.

"I was really competitive and when dad brought me to play and Luke was there, I always wanted to beat him.

"There was a while when I was around 12 that we were both off the same handicap, and it was so competitive to see who could get lower. That really helped when I was growing up and they had a really good junior programme at Tandragee as well.

"Women's golf in Ireland is really strong at the minute and to see the girls win the Home Internationals for the first time in Wales was incredible to witness. The girls coming through are really good and I can only see it getting stronger and stronger.

"If we can get a couple of girls on tour and Leona gets out there, I think that will push it on a bit more."

Becoming a role model is not Olivia's goal right now, but she looks to former Irish teammates Leona and Stephanie as an inspiration to a new generation.

Young Annabel Wilson from Lurgan is just one of those outstanding new players and she will join Olivia and Leona in the World Amateur Team Championships in Mexico next month.

"If the girls have somebody to look up to, it will do wonders for the game," Olivia said.

"If Leona was on tour that would help. When I started at Tandragee, I was the only girl and I played with all the boys and I never had any girls to play with.

"Now I am at Royal County Down there is Junior coaching and there are loads of girls around. It is the same at Tandragee. I never had that when I was growing up.

"There are so many girls playing and the ILGU does a really good job with big taster sessions and the Horizon panel. That gives them a chance to find out if this is what they want to do."

Mehaffey is now hoping to take her game to new heights in the US, where she plans to work hard on her fitness and her short game.

She certainly knows what she has to do, having made her major debut alongside Yani Tseng in the Ricoh Women's British Open at Woburn.

"I'd only ever played in a Ladies European Tour event before. It was great for me and only highlighted what I have to work on. Getting to play with Yani Tseng was just incredible.

"I was watching her distance control and how well she was able to stop the ball. Our drivers went a similar distance, but she was two clubs longer with the irons than me and her pace putting was just incredible. That really helped me and highlighted where I need to get to."

Mehaffey is not concerned she will get burnt out following a busy summer season with an intense winter programme with her new college team.

"My first event with the University is two weeks after Mexico so that will be the end of my summer season and it will be college golf after that," she said.

"Normally, November, December and January is when I work on my game. I don't have many competitions then. I think now that I have a little less to do with my game and it is a little more monitored, so I only have to make small changes.

"For me it makes sense now to be playing continuously rather than coming back in February and saying, 'oh, I don't know where the ball is going to go'."

She works on her swing with Royal County Down professional Kevan Whitson and with Donal Scott on putting and Robbie Cannon on strength and conditioning.

Gaining more upper body strength is a priority now.

"I will be able to compress it a little bit more and hit it a little bit further," she said.

"I think it is just at the stage now when it is about those little gains and that little bit extra you have to do to get stronger."

As for Arizona, she can't wait, though she confessed that she has one big weakness - her driving.

"The facilities are all on campus and a 10-minute walk away so that played a part in deciding to go to ASU," she said with a smile.

"I didn't want to drive in my first year. I was not a very good driver."

Thankfully for ASU, Mehaffey now hits her driver just fine and she's confident the team can contend for titles.

"I really like the coach and the team is really fun. We have a good team - Linnea Strom is world No. 8 and Monica Vaughn is world No. 16 and I'm No. 5 so I feel it is a really good team. Hopefully this year we can do some cool stuff."

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