As good ideas go, this was arguably the R&A’s best. Since Martin Slumbers became the R&A’s chief executive in 2015, the organization has been pouring money into the women’s game. Today, the R&A is more than halfway to arriving at its target of providing the same Open prize money for the women as for the men. Yet the four-hole Celebration of Champions exhibition at St Andrews on the Monday of Open week was something else again.
The USGA made the first move in bringing the leading men and women together when it first held its men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014. (The USGA will be doing the same again in 2029.) Next, the Masters announced its Augusta National Women’s Amateur championship in 2018, with the inaugural event taking place the following year.
What set the R&A’s idea apart was that the Celebration of Champions involved a few of the best-known names in the women’s professional arena demonstrating their skills alongside the men, though, for the business of bringing more youngsters into the game, it was a crying shame that it was not going out on the BBC rather than Sky Sports. (Just think what it did for women’s football when England’s defeat of Germany in the final of the European Championship last Sunday was being shown on a free-to-view channel to an audience of 17.4 million.)
Georgia Hall was the envy of all and sundry when she set out at 5 o’clock in the company of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Lee Trevino. The winner of the 2018 Women’s Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes has been on a high ever since, citing the extent to which those four holes have upped her confidence: “It was one of the experiences of my life,” she said. “What’s more, to have as many as six of the women professionals involved made it into a big thing for women’s golf overall.” For the record, Anna Nordqvist, Catriona Matthew, Laura Davies and Louise Duncan were the other professionals involved, along with Jess Baker from the amateur scene and Jennifer Sräga and Monique Kalkman from the U.S. Disabled Golf Association.
Experienced though she is, Hall found the minutes leading up to the first-tee moment nothing if not nerve-racking, what with R&A members peering out of the clubhouse window and the thousands of spectators staring from the stands. “I looked at Tiger and Rory,” she said, “and for a minute I had this feeling that they were cardboard-cuts. I had this urge to touch them to see if they were real.”
An introductory hug from McIlroy suggested that he was the real thing, while the same applied to the handshake she had from Woods. Trevino, too, interrupted his chatter to shake her by the hand.
Then it was time for the tee-shot which, over the years, has reduced strong men to jelly. In 1984, Sandy Lyle splashed his drive into the Swilcan Burn, a year before he won the Open at Royal St George’s. And in 1991, to give another example, Ian Baker-Finch snap-hooked his opening drive out of bounds on the far side of the 18th fairway. Hardly surprisingly, Ian Poulter was thinking of the Australian when he hit what set out to be a copycat of that duck hook this year until it pulled up on a rare grassy patch just short of the OB fence.
“If, as a 7-year-old, you’d have told me that I’d one day be playing alongside three great Open champions on the Old Course, I’d never have believed you. … To be honest, though, I had the feeling that I’d earned my place.” – Georgia Hall
Since crossed fingers were not a possibility, Hall thought of nothing beyond making contact with the ball. “Luckily,” she said, “I hit it bang out of the middle – and that made me happy enough to keep playing well for the rest of four holes.”
While Woods listened to Trevino, for listening is what any conversation with the so-called Merry Mex is all about, Hall had discussions with McIlroy about Ryder and Solheim Cups. That conversation included how they felt their sides would make out in 2023, and how the men’s teams might be affected by the various defections to LIV.
Following on from there, they discovered that they shared the same problem when it came to putting. Both had their struggles with long, left-to-right putt. “Rory,” she said, “told me that his way is to pick a spot in front of the ball that’s about 20 feet from the hole and that’s beginning to work for me.”
She also kept a close eye on Woods’ putting. In which department, she was startled to discover that watching him live was some way different from watching him on TV. “He had the ball far further forward in his stance than I thought.” she explained. “It was right up level with his left heel. Also, his stance was quite a bit narrower than I had anticipated.” Needless to say, she has adjusted her way accordingly. “And I’m putting better than I have for some time.”
Woods, when Trevino suddenly fell silent over a shot, talked to Hall about his favorite practice haunts, while he also commented on her golf. She was happy to report that he said she had “a lot of ‘pop’ in her swing and a lot of power.”
The 82-year-old Trevino, meanwhile, would have needed the exhibition to have been over 18 holes rather than four to have had time to chat to Hall and / or McIlroy as well as Woods. Hall, though, was impressed by his straight if short hitting.
As much as anything, the whole experience made Hall proud of what she had done in golf. “If, as a 7-year-old, you’d have told me that I’d one day be playing alongside three great Open champions on the Old Course, I’d never have believed you. … To be honest, though, I had the feeling that I’d earned my place.
“It had been one of my dreams to play with Tiger and, more and more, I was doubting that it would ever happen after his accident. The four of us had our picture taken together that evening and, the moment I get home after this week’s AIG Women’s Open, I’ll be getting it framed.
“I’m so thankful to the R&A and everyone else concerned for putting me in that group – and for giving me and the other women such an amazing experience.”
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