When Alison Nicholas, the 5ft Gilbratarian nicknamed “The Battleship”, dared to torpedo the hopes of the home darling Nancy Lopez in the 1997 US Women’s Open, there seemed no stopping the British contingent on Uncle Sam’s soil.
With Laura Davies having enjoyed a remarkable season the year before, it meant that three of the previous five US majors had been wrapped in the UK flag. “Who can challenge us now?” Nicholas said, ever so slightly in jest, and with not only Davies, but Trish Johnson and the likes of Caroline Pierce and Dale Reid riding high and a youngster emerging from North Berwick by the name Catriona Matthew, this was clearly a golden time for British female golf.
Yet although the Women’s Open provided major winners in Karen Stupples at Sunningdale in 2004 and then Matthew, herself, at Royal Lytham in 2009, the majors on Stateside began to drift bafflingly out of reach.
“The Dame” – as everyone respectfully refers – finished second at the 1999 Du Maurier Classic and racked up three more top-fours until the magic started to dissipate in 2005, while Matthew finished second at the 2007 Ana Inspiration and came closer than any Briton since when denied on the third extra hole of a play-off at the 2013 Women’s PGA, the major up for grabs in Philadelphia this week.
More recently, Charley Hull was only beaten by a shot in Lydia Ko’s historic success as a 17-year-old in the Ana Inspiration four years ago and has recorded three other top 10 in the US majors. A lover of difficult courses, Hull, 24, would normally make a worthy favourite to fill the void for her country, but this is no normal year – and not only for coronavirus or the fact Hull tested positive before the Ana last month.
If its 23 years since Nicholas, then it was 24 years since Britain had managed to produce consecutive winners of the LPGA Tour. Johnson and Pierce saw their long-standing record end on Sunday when Mel Reid’s emotional breakthrough at the Shoprite Classic followed up Georgia Hall’s win at the Portland Classic. Naturally, this has raised the UK hopes to levels perhaps not experienced since the end of the last century. Certainly Hall thinks so.
“It gives me more confidence that I’ve won in the US and I’m sure it does with Mel as well,” Hall said. “Obviously the courses are very different here than to the UK but this is obviously one of my goals and the next step for me really. Is this a new golden age for British female golf? I think so and definitely hope so.
“There are five or six of us now that are on the LPGA Tour playing really good golf. Charley has won over here, as has Bronte [Law] and Jodi [Ewart Shadoff] has come so close. And then there’s the thing about us all trying to emulate your friends,.
“I’m obviously closer to the English girls and it was brilliant Mel and I won right next door to each other. We want to beat each other and that spurs on. It’s a big, big bonus.”
Dame Laura, at 57, is teeing it up herself in Philadelphia this week and as the last British winner of the PGA – in 1996 – she has been on hand to lend advice to her young countrywomen. “She’s a great person to go to in weeks like this or any week, really, as she has basically won everything,” Hall said. “What a honour it would be to join her on this list of winners.”
In Hall and Co’s way is not only a quality field featuring nine of the world’s top 10 – the world No 1 Jin Young Ko, like many of top Koreans, continues to stay at home due to Covid19 concerns – as well as Sophia Popov, the German playing her first major after her Women’s Open fairytale at Royal Troon in November. And then there is the course, itself.
At the start of the week, Justin Rose informed his compatriots “you will love Aronimink!” and after winning there in 2010 and only missing out in a play-off in 2018, he knew that the significance of the exclamation mark would soon become apparent.
Danielle Kang, the world No 3, called it “monstrous” while Reid reined back and referred to it merely as a “beast”. “But it’s one of the best course I’ve ever seen,” Reid said. “It should be a challenge – it’s a major. Some girls are just going to struggle, but I cannot wait.”