Sunday 18 August 2019

Irish women ready to dance in Charleston

Historic US Women's Open as Stephanie Meadow and Leona Maguire become first Irish women to compete as professionals

Stephanie Meadow. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Stephanie Meadow. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

European Solheim Cup skipper Catriona Matthew is looking for players to step up to the plate in this week's US Women's Open.

But for Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow, it's all about doing their games justice and putting Gleneagles out of their minds as they make history at the Country Club of Charleston today and chase a $1 million payday.

For the first time in the history of Irish golf, two Irish women will tee it up as professionals in a major championship.

And while both have the games to turn Matthew's head as qualifying for the Solheim Cup matches heats up, it's the sweltering temperatures of Charleston in June, and the traditional USGA set up that's keeping them busy.

"It's tough but fair and what you would expect from a US Open," said Leona, who last played the course in 2013, when she beat Stephanie in the first round of the US Women's Amateur Championship.

"It's very similar to the Amateur in '13, same sort of length off the tee at around 6,500 yards but the greens are far firmer, and that will provide a tough test.

Leona Maguire. Photo: Kelly Defina/Getty Images
Leona Maguire. Photo: Kelly Defina/Getty Images

"Short game is the key this week 100 per cent, so I've been focusing a lot on that in my preparation and trying not to have expectations.

"You work so hard to compete against the best players in the world, so I'm looking forward to the challenge and coming here as a professional golfer. I'm going to enjoy the week and continue to learn."

She has no interest in speculation that Matthew is seriously considering her for the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in September, knowing that only big performances on the biggest stages will get the captain's attention.

While her two victories on the Symetra Tour have not gone unnoticed, Matthew wants to see players performing well in majors, especially those who do not play eight qualifying events and may need one of her four wildcards.

Heartbreaker: The 11th at Country Club of Charleston is a stiff challenge
Heartbreaker: The 11th at Country Club of Charleston is a stiff challenge

"Leona is a really impressive golfer and has been playing well this year," Matthew said this week. "Winning on the Symetra Tour is very different from winning on the LPGA Tour though. If she has a great summer, she could be in the running, but all the players need big performances in the majors to make a move."

The Country Club of Charleston is generous off the tee, but many of the greens are challenging, especially the 171-yard 11th, Reverse Redan, which has caused no shortage of heartache since its creation in 1925 by course architect Seth Raynor.

With a false front of about 25 yards, the green slopes severely away from front to back towards two deep bunkers.

Sam Snead had a 13 there in the 1937 Tournament of the Gardens Open and recommended a redesign using two sticks of dynamite while Ben Hogan was clearly no fan of Raynor's tribute to the famous 15th hole at North Berwick, remarking that there were 17 great holes at Charleston, not 18.

Whatever about the 11th, Maguire (24) has been handed a stellar draw for the first two rounds alongside two former US Women's Open champions in Australian Karrie Webb and Laura Davies (55), who will be one of Matthew's Solheim Cup vice-captains.

As for Meadow (27), she plays with Germany's Esther Henseleit and American Marissa Steen hoping for as memorable a week as her professional debut at Pinehurst No 2 in 2014, when she finished just three shots adrift of winner Michelle Wie in third place.

"The course gets trickier the deeper you go into the round," Meadow said after a practice round in sweltering temperatures. "I'm trying to figure out the ins and outs, and the rough has grown a little since I came down last week.

"It's an awesome course, and I can't wait to play it in competition. And it's clear that iron play will be key with a lot of run-offs around the greens.

"I'm putting well and the greens are perfect so I would anticipate a lot of people making putts out here. Scoring will be dictated by the wind but having played well in the US Open before, I take confidence from that and know I can do it again.

"I feel like my game is trending in the right direction after a good final round in Virginia last week so I am peaking at the right time, I think."

As one of the straighter hitters on tour, Meadow believes a major gives her a better chance of making waves, especially in a Solheim Cup year.

"I think I do better on the tougher courses as opposed to the weeks where 25 under wins," she said. "The Solheim Cup is definitely on my radar, but I have to focus on my process and let things like that sort themselves out."

With the USGA boosting the prize fund to $5.5 million, making it the biggest in women's professional golf with the first $1m winner's cheque up for grabs, it's an ideal week for Meadow and Maguire to impress.

The 156-strong field features 12 US Women's Open winners, headed by defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn, as well as Olympic champion Inbee Park.

It's arguably the most coveted title in the women's game as US Solheim Cup skipper Julie Inkster explained when recalling her win of 20 years ago.

"It was my most nerve- wracking win because I had a big lead on Sunday and I just didn't want to throw up on myself," Inkster said.

"You can go anywhere and say you're a US Open champion and it carries a lot of credibility. I became one that week. It was a very big deal."

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