Martin Dempster: Troon has set standard for exciting Women’s Open run
Great narrative that included play concluding early on Saturday
Golf events are strange environments at the moment and mainly, of course, because there are no fans, which really was a pity for the first staging of the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon.
Using the public beach that flanks the first few holes, some locals did sneak a peek of the action over the fence at the weekend after showing they’re not daft by staying away in the wind and rain on the opening two days.
However, it was an eerie sight as you looked over an almost deserted course during the week, and I have to admit that I felt like a trespasser on one venture out to the Postage Stamp just to be reminded of its sheer beauty.
A few players in the 144-strong field had tackled that as amateurs in the Helen Holm Trophy but, for the majority, this was their first taste of Royal Troon and there was no hiding what that meant to them.
They’d all had their appetites whetted by watching Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson produce one of the game’s great duels in recent times in the men’s equivalent in 2016 and getting this opportunity to follow in their footsteps was huge.
As will a first staging of the major at Muirfield in 2022, which was announced last week as part of an exciting five-year schedule mapped out by the R&A during lockdown to try to maximise the tournament’s potential to grow the women’s game.
Next year’s event had been due to head to Royal Porthcawl for the first time, but that has been pushed back to 2025. Carnoustie is now next up then Muirfield, Walton Heath and St Andrews before that visit to Wales. No wonder lips were being licked when the lid was lifted on that run.
Back to Troon, though, and the women did indeed find out that their male counterparts were spot on regarding it as one of the top tests in the game, as will also be the case, of course, at Muirfield.
At the end of an admittedly testing week weather-wise, especially in a howling wind on Thursday and Friday, only four players finished under par, the best score was five-under 66 and the scoring average was 73.906.
That is what you call a proper test of golf, especially in the week when we saw a 59 by Scottie Scheffler in the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open in Boston and Dustin Johnson winning that with a 30-under-par total after shooting ridiculous scores of 67-60-64-63.
As was the case with Collin Morikawa in the US PGA Championship in San Francisco, this event produced a first-time major winner in Germany’s Sophia Popov. Was that a coincidence? Maybe, but just like Morikawa, Popov benefited from not having the additional pressure from crowds and reactions to what was happening around the course. When Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura, for instance, made a menacing move, for instance, in the final round with four birdies in a row.
Not that I am trying to take anything away from Popov because I’m not. The 27-year-old produced two polished rounds over the weekend – she hit all 18 greens in regulation on Saturday and never put herself under any real pressure on Sunday after bouncing back from a bogey at the first to birdie the next two – and was a very worthy winner indeed. As was the case with Japan’s Hinako Shibuno at Woburn last year, the event delivered a fantastic storyline for the R&A and AIG, with the narrative free, thankfully, of any focus whatsoever on slow play.
Play was completed on Saturday, in fact, 30 minutes ahead of schedule and fair play to the R&A for being sympathetic with the course set-up for the first two rounds.
The one cloud left hanging over the event was probably Lexi Thompson escaping punishment for using her club to try to move a tuft of wiry grass as she addressed a shot in the first round, and it really is time for the American to show a better awareness when it comes to the rules of the game.
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