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England's Charley Hull is ready to join golf's youth parade

By Ron Sirak

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SOUTHPORT, England -- The first time Charley Hull popped onto the golf radar for most fans was last year's Solheim Cup when she dispatched Paula Creamer, 5 and 4, in singles -- then asked for her autograph.

Viewers are likely to learn a lot more about Hull on Sunday at the Ricoh Women's British Open. She's sitting at one-under 215 after 54 holes, a score that will be within striking distance in the final round.

With an early Saturday tee time, the 18-year-old Englishwoman made two quick bogeys but then charged into contention with a third-round 66, the low score of the week thus far at Royal Birkdale.

There is something fresh-faced and fun about Hull that reminds you of a young Dame Laura Davies. They both approach the game with the same "hit it, go find it and hit it again" philosophy. Hull, however, probably practices a wee bit more than Davies.

Related: Q&A with Charley Hull

It was that no-look-back attitude that buoyed Hull's spirits following a 76 on Friday -- which included a 40 on the back nine after driving out of bounds for the second straight day on No. 18 -- that left her 11 strokes behind 36-hole leader Mo Martin.

"I said to my Dad last night, 'I'm not out of this championship,' " Hull said. "Some one was 10 shots off the lead …"

Paul Lawrie when he won the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, she was reminded.

"And that was in the final round, wasn't it?" she said.

Yes, it was.

After opening with those two bogeys, Hull made birdies on eight of the next 14 holes, including all four par 3s, before a three-putt bogey on No. 17 slowed her slightly.

"I really felt like I was going to hole my first one," she said about her 17-footer for birdie. "So I raced it about five-feet past and left myself a tricky putt, downhill, left-to-right."

But she closed with a birdie on the par-5 18th where she had made a 7 and a 6 the previous two days. "I'm most happy about hitting 18 fairway because I've hit nearly three balls out-of-bounds to the right off my tee shot this week," Hull said with amused annoyance.

"Yesterday, I hit it out right, hit a provisional off the tee and hit it two inches in bounds, so I had to take the drop," she said with delightful matter-of-factness. "Hacked it out, pitched it up, holed a putt for 7. It was the best 7 I've ever had."

This is only the second time Hull has made the cut in an LPGA major, missing the previous two years in the Ricoh Women's British Open and last year at the Evian Championship. She finished T-7 in this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship, fading with a Sunday 76 after a third-round 66, and did not qualify for the U.S. Women's Open.

Hull passed on an exemption to the final stage of 2013 LPGA Q school in order to focus on the Ladies European Tour this year. That's paid off. She got her first LET victory at the Lalla Meryern Cup in Morocco when she birdied the first hole of a playoff against Gwladys Nocera.

Hull emerged as a star during Europe's first ever Solheim Cup victory on American soil at Colorado GC last August, going 2-1-0.

On the first tee of her singles match with Creamer, Hull innocently complimented her on her shoes, when went out and waxed her. And as for that autograph request?

"My friend at home, he's a big fan," she said. "So I thought I might as well get one."

The youthful spontaneity with which Hull answers questions reflects the same carefree, aggressive enthusiasm she brings to her play.

"I don't realize that I play aggressive golf, but I probably do," she says. "I just hit it. If it's a stupid pin, I'm not going to take it on, but if it's reasonable, I just go for it."

As for Sunday?

"Like I always say, hit it, find it, hit it again, just do that," Charley says. "Just go out there and do my thing."

Something Dame Laura would say. Then Hull went off with her coach to practice. Something Dame Laura would never do.

In a sea of fresh-faced young talent in women's golf, Hull just may emerge as one of the best, and already is one of the most interesting. Her next star turn comes on Sunday at Royal Birkdale.

Photo: Getty Images

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News & Tours

Birkdale turns ornery, and sends Michelle Wie home early from the Women's British Open

By Ron Sirak

SOUTHPORT, England -- How do you tell a great golf course that is set up properly for a major championship? One way is that it severely punishes poor play and adequately rewards those who are hitting the ball well.

Pinehurst No. 2 did that when it beat up most of two fields in the twin U.S. Opens but allowed Martin Kaymer then Michelle Wie and Stacy Lewis low scores when their shot-making deserved it.

And by Day 2 of the Ricoh Women's British Open it appeared Royal Birkdale was cut in the same mold.

There were some dreadfully high scores Friday, including an 83 by 2009 champion Catriona Matthew, 79 by three-time Women's British winner Karrie Webb and first-round leader Ayako Uehara, along with a 78 from Wie that ended her chances of winning back-to-back majors.

But there were also a handful of brilliant rounds, including a 67 by Beatriz Recari that put her at three-under 141 going to the weekend, tying her with 2011 U.S. Women's Open winner So Yeon Ryu, who shot a 70, for second after 36 holes.

The pair are three strokes back of Mo Martin, who shot a second-straight 69, birdieing two of her last four holes, to finish at six-under 138 and take the halfway lead.

"It's so important to put it in the fairway because that gave me the confidence to be more aggressive and be able to chase a couple of pins and chase some birdies," Recari (shown) said after hitting 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens.

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Sun-ju Ahn also shot a 67 and was in at two-under-par 142 after two rounds.

There was an impressive act of resiliency Friday as Kraft Nabisco Championship winner Lexi Thompson opened with a 10 on No. 1, hitting two balls out of bounds, but played the next 17 holes one under for a 77 to make the cut.

Wie, who has been playing remarkably consistent golf in 2014, had her two highest rounds of the year, going 75-78 to miss the cut. She had fought back from an outgoing 39 but double bogeyed No. 16 and bogeyed No. 17 to miss the weekend by two strokes.

"It's a tough golf course and I just didn't it hit very well or putt very well," Wie said. "It was one of those weeks were if I had been a little bit further left or a little bit further right, I'd have been OK."

Still, the way she has been playing -- two victories, a ton of ton-10s and that U.S. Women's Open win -- Wie walked away with her head held high. "You are going to make bogeys on a course like this, but I just didn't make birdies," she said. "I'll learn from this."

Lewis had an up-and-down round en route to a 74 that left her one over par going to the weekend, still very much in the hunt as Americans try to win the first three LPGA majors of the year for the first time since 1999.

Solid rounds of even-par 72 by Jessica Korda, Inbee Park and Azahara Munoz left them at even-par 144. Korda got things together after starting her round with a double bogey and a bogey, the same way she opened her round on Thursday.

"If I can get those first two holes down, then I don't have to be six over par on them in two days it would be nice," Korda said.

The Ricoh won't have the star power of Wie on the weekend, but it does have the star power of a great golf course and enough supporting actors to make for a compelling weekend.

And there really hasn't been any weather to speak of yet. That could be the added bit of drama the weekend has in store for this Women's British Open.

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News & Tours

Is anyone surprised the Americans are lurking after Day 1 of the Women's British Open?

By Ron Sirak

loop-mo-martin-british-518.jpgSOUTHPORT, England -- For roughly two decades one of the most-asked questions in women's golf was, "Where are the Americans?" From 1994, when Beth Daniel won the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year, until 2012, when Stacy Lewis earned the title, no Yank had copped that honor. And during a 20-year run ending last year, England, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea all could claim to have produced the best player in the world.

But 2014 is turning into the Year of the American.

Coming into the Ricoh Women's British Open, U.S. players had won 10 of the 16 LPGA tournaments, including both majors -- Lexi Thompson in the Kraft Nabisco Championship and Michelle Wie in the U.S. Women's Open. The last time Americans won the first three majors of the year was in 1999 when Dottie Pepper won the Kraft Nabisco and Juli Inkster took the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open.

And while Ayako Uehara of Japan shot a four-under-par 68 to take the first-round lead Thursday on a very stingy Royal Birkdale, a band of Americans were not far behind.

Mo Martin (above) finished Round 1 a stroke off the pace with a 69 while Morgan Pressel and Mina Harigae were at 70. Lewis, the defending champion and No. 1 player on the Rolex Ranking, posted a 71 with Thompson, Jessica Korda, Marina Alex, Amelia Lewis and amateur Emma Talley at 72.

Sweden's Anna Nordqvist, twice a winner in 2014, also opened with a 72, and was joined by Suzann Pettersen of Norway, South Korea's Inbee Park, who won three majors last year and has one LPGA title in 2014, and Karrie Webb, a two-time winner this year from Australia.

Pretty much everyone traces the resurgence to the stinging defeat by Europe in last year's Solheim Cup at Colorado Golf Club outside Denver, the first time the U.S. squad lost a home game in that competition.

"I think all of the Americans are very motivated," Wie said. "We kind of got our butt kicked [at last year's] Solheim and I think after that, I think a lot of us just really looked into ourselves and kind of just re-evaluated what was happening. It was a good reality check."

Wie, however, got off to a slow start, opening with a three-over 75. She may need to abandon her conservative game plan and hit more drivers.

"I definitely felt like my tempo was a little bit off," she said after playing early on what passed for a calm day on the west coast of England. "But it's a long way until Sunday and I battled. Definitely not the score I was looking for on Thursday, but it could have been a lot worse and I really hung in there today."

Related: MIchelle Wie's Wild Ride Rolls On Entering the Women's British Open

Wie hit seven of the 14 extremely narrow fairways -- think of them as lumpy bowling alleys -- and nine of the 18 postage stamp-size greens, using 30 putts.

"You look at the first half of this year and how many Americans have won and there's definitely been a switch," says Lewis, the only three-time winner on the LPGA Tour this year. "I think we have all been kind of motivated from Solheim and from answering those questions all the time of where are the Americans."

Lewis, who played the last nine holes two under par, took advantage of the mostly calm conditions during her 6:52 a.m. tee time with Uehara and Charley Hull, a Solheim Cup star from England, who shot 73.

"I think anything under par on this golf course is a good score," she said. "It's nice to have it pretty calm. Sunday looks like we are going to have worse weather, which I would love to see on Sunday. It was nice to play the golf course the way it should be played instead of wind-whipped."

While some big-name Americans disappointed along with Wie -- Angela Stanford shot 74; Paula Creamer 75 and Cristie Kerr 81 -- plenty are well-positioned after 18 holes.

Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco was a shootout between Thompson and Wie; the final day of the U.S. Women's Open saw Lewis pressuring Wie and finishing second. Perhaps this coming Sunday at Royal Birkdale will provide the next response to the question: "Where are the Americans?"

Photo: Getty Images

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News & Tours

Dame Laura Davies has some sage advice for her peers

By Ron Sirak

loop-laura-davies-2-518.jpgSOUTHPORT, England -- At 51, and four years removed from the last of her 84 professional victories, Dame Laura Davies still loves the game and still thinks she has a chance at this week's Ricoh Women's British Open, which she won in 1986 -- before many in the field were born.

She also questions whether many of those youngsters will have careers as long as hers.

"I don't really know what burnout means, but I just think they will be fed up with it because when you spend every week … even when they have a week off, they are practicing and playing," Davies said Wednesday at Royal Birkdale. "I think eventually it will become a job, and it's never been a job for me."

Davies is the oldest players in the field -- "Only because Juli [Inkster] is not here," she noted -- and says that except for a bruised heel, she feels as good as she ever has.

"The enthusiasm is still there," said Davies, who famously avoided practicing like it was a three-putt green. "In my mind, I'm good enough. I've not given up on the chances of winning this week."

Earlier this year, Davies was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). In 1988, she was made Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and in 2000 was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), all for services to golf.

The latest honor means she will always be known now as Dame Laura Davies. "There's been various versions from my friends, but I haven't necessarily used [it] myself," she said with a smile, suggesting she's received some guff from her mates about the honor.

"It's obviously an unbelievable thing to happen to a golfer," she said. "To be awarded this is quite extraordinary, but I don't think you'll ever get used to people calling you Dame."

If broad powers over the game of golf came with her title, there are two things Dame Laura would do straight away. One would be banning the common practice in women's golf of caddies lining up players.

"It shouldn't be allowed," she said. "You're not allowed to get a grip that's perfectly set for you. Why should you have someone stand behind you and tell you where to aim? I don't understand why the USGA and the R&A haven't sussed that one out yet because it just seems basic. And it slows the game down."

The other rule change?

"Making me putt when I've made a bad putt. Two-putt maximum," she said with a laugh.

Keeping things light-hearted is exacty how Davies has kept golf from becoming a job. There might be a lesson in there for young players.

And like that, Dame Laura was off. Where to was not exactly clear, but for a betting person -- and Davies is such a person -- the odds are with the lunch room and not the practice range. After all, it's only a game.

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News & Tours

Laetitia Beck isn't making any ordinary pro debut at the Women's British Open

By Ron Sirak

loop-laetitia-beck-2-518.jpgSOUTHPORT, England -- Caesarea is a tiny town of about 4,500 people on the Israeli coast midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa whose roots extend to Herod the Great in about 25 B.C. It also has the country's only 18-hole golf course.

This is where Laetitia Beck grew up, moving from Belgium with her parents when she was 6. At 9, she got into golf -- both her parents play -- and at 14 she moved to Florida to study at the IMG Academy.

At 7:58 local time Thursday morning she will do something no Israeli woman has ever done: tee off in a golf tournament as a professional.

A member of this year's Duke NCAA national championship team, Beck played the Monday qualifier for the Ricoh Women' British Open as an amateur, shot four-under 70 at Southport & Ainsdale GC to finish T-5 for one of the 15 spots in the field and turned pro on the spot.

"It means a lot to me," Beck said Wednesday at Royal Birkdale of making history. "It's not like I have a role model. It's the first time for me and my country."

Israel has a total of 27 holes, and Beck estimates there are maybe 1,000 golfers in the country. Even as a five-time winner of the Ladies Championship in the Israeli Open, she says she is barely known at home.

Beck is a quiet, thoughtful 22-year-old, almost to the point of being shy. "I never used to talk at all," she says. "So I'm getting better." She's also extremely proud of her country, the side of her hat bearing the Israeli flag.

To make it in the world of golf, Beck had to leave Israel, and that was not an easy adjustment. "At first it was exhausting," she said about entering the IMG Academy. "At the end of the first year I wanted to go home."

She stuck it out and earned a scholarship to Duke, where she majored in psychology, was the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year and a four-time member of the All-ACC team. "It was hard just balancing school and golf, but it made me stronger, tougher," Beck says. "I agree with what Stacy Lewis said about the importance of college. The experience is so different. I think everyone should go."

Beck says she will attend qualifying school for both the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour later this year. But first, she will go home after the Women's British Open to discuss her mandatory military service.

"We all have to serve four years, and I want to serve, but I also think I can do more for my country by playing golf," she says. Her service was already delayed so that she could attend Duke and could be delayed until her career is over.

Beck is an observant Jew who follows Kosher dietary laws. She missed one college tournament on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. "My Judaism is very important to me, and I keep all the other holidays," she said at the time. "On Yom Kippur, no matter what, I have to fast."

Although she has spent most of the last eight years in the United States and now will travel the world pursuing a career as a professional golfer, her homeland is always in her heart and on her mind

"We watch every day and see all of the problems," she says about headlines of the latest violence in Israel. While she is powerless to change those headlines, she is proud to be a pioneer for her country.

And that, she hopes, will make a difference in some small way.

Photo: Duke University

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News & Tours

Stacy Lewis was "surprised" by reaction to her Lucy Li comments

By Alex Myers

The modern athlete is in a tough spot. Say too little? You're labeled boring and taken to task. Say too much? You're labeled too opinionated -- or worse -- and taken to task.

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Prior to the U.S. Women's Open, Stacy Lewis put herself in the second category when she was asked about 11-year-old Lucy Li qualifying to play at Pinehurst. Her response:

Related: Michelle Wie twerks and Paula Creamer visits Fort Bragg

"I'm not a big fan of it. She qualified, so we can't say anything about that. You qualify for an Open, it's a great thing. But I just -- I like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here."

Then, the top-ranked woman golfer added, "You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next? You know? So it's kind of -- I don't know. If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that's just me."

Lewis was asked a question and she gave an honest answer. Isn't that what she's supposed to do? But since Lewis' opinion didn't go along with the feel-good story of a little girl in pigtails playing in the U.S. Open, she received a strong reaction that caught her off guard.

"I was surprised," Lewis said during a Wednesday phone call. "I walked out of the media center and didn't think I had said anything bad. And a lot of the media I talked to didn't think I said anything wrong."

She still doesn't. "I don't like the trend of girls coming up younger and younger to the professional level. I encourage girls to just follow the course."

Fair enough. And whether you agree or not, shouldn't athletes be allowed/encouraged to express their beliefs? Lewis, who was also outspoken about Golf Digest putting Paulina Gretzky on its May cover earlier in the year, probably just expressed what a lot of her peers were too afraid to say. 

Related: Why back-to-back majors worked at Pinehurst

Thankfully, the story eventually went away and both Li, who shot a pair of 78s, and Lewis, who finished runner-up, had successful weeks in their own way. And thankfully, Lewis doesn't sound like she's going to change.

"I'm always one to voice my opinion," Lewis said. "I'm never one to give a cookie-cutter answer."

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News & Tours

Michelle Wie turns back the clock

By John Strege

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The idea of a 24-year-old turning back the clock would seem bizarre. Turning it back to what, when she was 16? Thirteen?

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Yes, in fact. Michelle Wie, whose professional career largely has been defined by mediocrity, according to standards dictated by her teens, opened the Kraft Nabisco Championship Thursday with a round of five-under par 67 and is tied for second, one shot behind Shanshan Feng.

When she was 13, Wie tied for ninth in the Kraft Nabisco. She followed that remarkable performance with finishes of fourth, T-14 and T-3, the latter her best performance in the event, when she was 16. It was a stretch of golf that ramped up expectations, arguably beyond reasonable, that have never been met.

Wie entered the tournament 38th in the Rolex Ranking and has won only twice in her LPGA career, but not since August of 2010, the CN Canadian Women's Open.

How does contending in the Kraft Nabisco differ at 24 than it did at 13 or 16?

"I'm much more appreciative of it now," she said. "When you’re younger, it's, 'oh, yeah, that’s cool.' Now I’m a lot more appreciate that I have a chance."

This round was the third best she's ever played in the tournament (she has shot 66 twice). Her round was made largely from the ninth through 12th holes, when she went birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie.

“I just felt comfortable out there today," she said. My course management was good. I was aggressive on the holes I needed to be and conservative on the other ones."

(Getty Images photo)

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News & Tours

Karrie Webb donated $50,000 of her Founders winnings to charity. Here's why that's especially cool

By Keely Levins

When Karrie Webb won the JTBC Founders Cup last week -- setting the course record along the way -- I thought: "Wow, she's been winning forever."

Well, maybe not forever. I was 4 years old when she won the 1995 Women's British Open, her first major, which means she's been winning for as long as I've known how to hold a club. A solid 19 years.

My sense of time and space may be a bit off, but Karrie's is not. And she proved it with the two donations she made with the $225,000 purse she earned with her win, as revealed by Karen Crouse in her recent New York Times article about Webb.

Webb gave $25,000 to LPGA-USGA Girls Golf and put another $25,000 towards a documentary about the founders of the LPGA. The symmetry of the donation is worth noting; she's giving a nod to those who gave her a tour to be a part of and a helping hand to those who are going to keep that tour alive.

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Fittingly, Webb's win was her 41st LPGA victory, giving her a share of 10th on the all-time LPGA victory list. She's tied with Babe Zaharias, one of the most ridiculously talented female athletes in history -- not to mention one of those 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. 

 

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LPGA

Kraft Nabisco Championship at a crossroads

By John Strege

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The Kraft Nabisco Championship is at a crossroads, though there is no reason to suspect it will take a wrong turn. With Dinah Shore Drive just outside the gates as a reminder, it shouldn’t lose its way.

But Kraft Nabisco, a company involved in the tournament since 1982, a year before it became the LPGA’s showcase major championship, is bowing out after this event, which begins on Thursday on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club.

IMG, which is operating the tournament for Kraft for the second straight year, will no doubt continue in a similar capacity, working with a new sponsor.

Its mandate: First, do no harm.

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(Getty Images photo)

“When I think of a major, I think of this event,” Stacy Lewis said. “I think of the tradition, the history. Last night at our champions dinner, just hearing all the ladies talk about Dinah Shore, all the traditions that have been built here...this is what our tour is about. We have one of the best celebrations on tour. The walk across the bridge, the walk when you have the lead coming up Sunday, it's the best.”

The tournament began in 1972, as the Colgate Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle, and became a major under the Nabisco Dinah Shore banner in 1983. Shore was principally responsible for giving the Kraft Nabisco Championship the cachet that it enjoys in women’s golf.

“I do think there’s this sense that everything will be OK,” Golf Channel’s Judy Rankin said. Rankin has been there since its inception, first as a player, now as a broadcaster. “It's such a magnificent product in women's golf, and it is the one product [where] fans of golf know the golf course, know the drill, and know that it is prior to the Masters, and it has a familiarity like Augusta does where people know the holes that are coming up.

“If I had one tournament to go try to sell, I'd sure like to try to sell that one.”


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Style

Impact: The low down on Annika's low round

By Alex Holmes

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"I stay patient. I don't go out there and try to set a course record. That's probably one of my strengths and one reason I've been able to win major championships." -- Annika Sorenstam

Even if Sorenstam wasn't trying to set a record during the second round of the LPGA's Standard Register Ping on March 16, 2001, she blew one away when she made 13 birdies and no bogeys, needing just 25 putts at Moon Valley CC in Phoenix to break the LPGA's all-time mark for low 18-hole score by two strokes.

Six men (Al Geiberger, Chip Beck, David Duval, Paul Goydos, Stuart Appleby and Jim Furyk) have shot 59s in PGA Tour events, but to date not other woman has broken the infamous 60 mark on the LPGA Tour.

Photo: Getty Images

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