Australian Ladies Professional Golf
Wiser Smith excited for St Andrews debut
Date: 30th July 2013
By: Martin Blake / Golf.org.au
Sarah-Jane Smith
Sarah-Jane Smith: "there's something extra special about St Andrews."

You will forgive Sarah-Jane Smith for some nerves on the first tee at St Andrews on Thursday.

It's not every day a lifelong golf lover gets to play at the home of game, let alone in a major professional tournament like the Ricoh Women's British Open.

Smith, 29, has never played the Old Course, although she has made a pilgrimage there.

It was 2011, and she had missed the cut in the Women's Open at Carnoustie, just a short drive north of St Andrews. Smith and her husband Duane, also a professional golfer as well as her regular caddie, could not resist the lure of a sojourn to the famous Scottish town on the Sunday.

What they found when they got there was a surprise, for the Old Course is not surrounded by high fences or protected by security, hidden from view.

In fact, it is public parkland in the heart of the village, albeit a sacred place, especially for golfers. "It was a weird experience because the course was closed, and there were people having a picnic in the middle of 18, it was so bizarre,'' Smith told golf.org.au this week.

"If you haven't been there you are thinking 'what are they doing?' They had a sign asking you not to stand in the Road Hole bunker, and I wanted to get in there so badly! I guess so many people have done it.''

Two years on Smith is in the field for the Open in her own right, playing some of the best golf of her life and ranked 147th in the world, among the cluster of younger Australian players desperately trying to fill the vacuum behind Karrie Webb, still this country's finest female player.

"There's so much history involved in any British Open and I've been fortunate to play some of the best courses over there, but there's something extra special about St Andrews,'' she said. "The town itself has such a great atmosphere, so it'll be really cool to see it in a tournament situation and get to play it.''

The Old Course is hosting the Open for the third time, but Smith was not in the field last time the tournament came to St Andrews in 2007.

She comes with a sharper short game honed by her coach Tony Ziegler in her home base of Florida. "I feel like I've been solid ball-striker but I had room to improve with my short game and in particular my putting,'' she said. "The putting's come along but for the first time ever my long game slipped away in the middle of the season. Now I'm learning to balance it a bit better and learning to get it under control.''

She joined Ziegler 18 months ago after an amicable parting from Brisbane-based Ian Triggs, who remains a friend and mentor.

"I needed a little more time, and being based over here now, I needed someone I could go out on the course with all the time, work on my game with things other than swinging. He (Ziegler) has made a massive difference.''

Seven years into her life as an LPGA player, Smith believes she could be on the cusp of a big improvement, for she finally feels comfortable; no longer is she the overawed young player who could not believe she was playing alongside the Webbs and Sorenstams of the game.

Back in her first season (2006, when she qualified by winning twice on the Futures Tour) she remembers getting a late start in a tournament when and ill or injured Natalie Gulbis pulled out on the first tee.

"I was not ready for it at all,'' she recalled this week. "I was just in the right spot at the right time. They couldn't get the first and second alternate to the tee in time and the next thing I was playing with Karrie and Cristie Kerr. That was a pretty cool experience, but I was a nervous wreck.''

She is a different player now, more experienced. In the second major of this season, the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she played in the closing groups on the final day but faded, suffering with a heavy cold on a day when bad weather forced the players to grind through 36 holes in debilitating heat. Still, it gave her a taste.

"I'm not the person that comes in fully loaded with confidence and that comfort that helps you play really well, but I'm starting to get that. It sounds kind of weird considering I've been here seven years, but that's how it is. My husband Duane caddies for me, and it was a learning experience for both of us. We had to learn what we were doing and we've got to the point we're doing everything right.''

"I've had flashes of contending. One of my things is I get really quick. In everything I do I'm fast and quick. That's something I've been working on, keeping that nice rhythm especially on weekends. I've got myself into some nice positions and haven't carried through on the weekend. That's something I have to work on.''

Webb, the world No. 6, won in England last weekend and will go into the Open as the overwhelming favourite among Australians and those trying to hault the inexorable progress of Inbee Park, Korea's world No. 1, who has won all three majors this season.

At 38 Webb remains an figure of fame to Australian players, not least fellow-Queenslander Smith, who hails from Caloundra. "She's still Karrie Webb to me, if that makes any sense. I probably still can't be natural around her. She hasn't lost that awe to me, at least. But she's doing all sorts of great things for girls now, the scholarship where she brings the young girls across to the US. It adds to what she's already done, I think.''

For the next few days, Smith's focus will be on links golf; the game played in the old-fashioned way. It is a long way from the lush, green resort courses of the LPGA, but she does not mind. It will be her fourth start in a British Open.

"I really enjoy it,'' she said. "It's a different style of golf. But even when the weather's bad, it's enjoyable. It's the British Open. It's supposed to be windy, it's supposed to be cold. You just have to enjoy it. It might be hot this year, but I love that style of golf. I can't wait.''

She might even get to stand in the Road Hole bunker, but hopefully just for fun. "Only in practise, hopefully!''

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