We’re in the countdown to tee time at the RICOH Women’s British Open. The players and local fans are watching the weather — Thursday promises party cloudy skies and a high of 70 and Friday promises rain and temperatures in the high 60s. Dame Laura Davies will be playing her 30th Open, and the number crunchers have begun projecting scenarios for Lydia Ko to overtake Stacy Lewis in the rankings. Here’s how it could play out: A win by Ko and a four-way tie for 2nd or worse by Lewis, and the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings will switch hands. If that happens, Ko would be right at 5 years younger than Yani Tseng and Jiyai Shin, who both held the No. 1 spot as 22-year-olds. But that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Right now Stacy Lewis is the defending champion at the Women’s British Open, the magical 5-iron that delivered the winning shot at St Andrews last year enshrined in one of her old Solheim Cup bags. Let’s take a look at four of the power pairings for the opening Thursday round. There are players fully prepared to challenge Lewis in each of these groups.
Lexi Thompson, Stephanie Meadow, Gwladys Nocera, 6:41 am, Tee #1
Lexi Thompson has the edge in this group, but not by much. Stephanie Meadow, lacking in neither talent nor self-confidence, will be pushing Thompson. What about Gwladys Nocera? The 39-year old Frenchwoman who plays on the LET has thirteen professional wins on her resume, but none of them are Majors.
Thompson and Meadow will probably outplay Nocera and Thompson, with more experience playing links golf than Meadow, will be more comfortable with the intense challenges of the Royal Birkdale. Meadow, however, is a quick study. She may trail on Thursday and pick up speed on Friday when she gets the rhythm of the Open.
Shiho Oyama, Catriona Matthew, Suzann Pettersen, 11:37am, Tee #1
Shiho Oyama plays on the JLPGA Tour, where she’s recorded 13 career victories. Oyama played in the 2011 Evian Masters and the Kraft Nabisco Championship but hasn’t played in any LET or LPGA events over the past two years. I expect that the contest in this group will be between Catriona Matthew and Suzann Pettersen, and I’m looking for the Scot to dominate. Pettersen’s been playing a bit below her number 4 ranking and Matthew is playing in a very comfortable and familiar environment.
World ranked 15th, with 98 career top-10s, four of them wins, Matthew is looking forward to a few weeks at home following the British Open and I anticipate that anticipated change of pace will be an added incentive for her to play at the top of her game.
Ai Miyazato, Paula Creamer, Lydia Ko, 11:48am, Tee #1
Former world ranked #1 Ai Miyazato has 58 top-10 finishes on her resume, nine of them victories, including two Evian Championship wins. Although she’s not played at the top of the board this season she has the game in her bag to stay competitive, but I’m not looking for Miyazato to outplay Paula Creamer or Lydia Ko.
The real question in this group is whether or not 12th ranked Creamer will outplay 2nd ranked Ko. I believe she will.
Creamer’s by far the more experienced competitor, particularly in links golf environments. Creamer’s 93 career top-10 finishes, 10 of them victories, give her a depth of experience in competition that Ko lacks and I’m expecting that Royal Birkdale will be mastered by a veteran, not a rookie.
Su-Huyn Oh, Belen Mozo, Gerina Piller, 1:16pm, Tee #1
This is a very interesting pairing. Aussie amateur Su-Huyn Oh earned her spot at the Open at the Monday qualifier, alongside Stephanie Meadow. Oh’s the most recent of the talented Australian amateurs to begin testing the pro golf waters (Minjee Lee, who is also in the Women’s British Open field, precedes her). Oh tied for runner-up at the 2013 Australian Ladies Masters but this is her first step onto golf’s big stage. She’s paired with one of the LPGA’s big bombers, world ranked 26th Gerina Piller, and rising star Belen Mozo, ranked at 113th.
Given the record of Greg Norman’s High Impact Sports program to produce world-class young golfers, I have no doubt that Oh will not be outclassed by Piller and Mozo, but I think the contest in this group will be between these two players who are both hunting their first pro victory. Mozo’s game is more suited to the conditions at Royal Birkdale than Piller’s, requiring targeted playing rather than the rip it and grip it style. I think Mozo will edge out Piller and Oh.
Summing It Up: Lewis v Wie
There’s been much chatter about the emerging competition between Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie, who edged out Lewis at the US Women’s Open last month. It’s a competition between good friends, and it’s a competition that will strengthen both Lewis and Wie in the long run. But the Women’s British Open is about more than a contest between two players. While that contest will produce some riveting golf that will challenge two great athletes to achieve at ever-higher levels and thrill us as fans, let’s not lose sight of the fuller field about to tee off and test themselves not only against each other but also against Old Man Par.
Michelle Wie put the game and the many-layered contest into perspective when she was asked today how winning the US Women’s Open had changed the way she thinks about her game:
It doesn’t change my views on anything. I still am attacking the game the same way I’ve attacked it before Pinehurst. I’m not looking at the game any differently. I’m not looking at myself any differently. It’s not made me hungrier. It made me more motivated to go out and play better.