Katherine Kirk is preparing for scorching heat in California as the LPGA Tour presents the second major of the women’s season this week, the ANA Inspiration.
Queenslander Kirk was stunned to find when she checked the forecast for Rancho Mirage resort area that the temperature is forecast to reach an “unheard of” 49 degrees early in the week. Every tournament day has a forecast of at least 38 degrees.
Most of all, she’s concerned about her Irish caddie, Vern Tess. The LPGA has already told players that their caddies will have the option of using carts this week, and Kirk hopes that her longtime bagman will take up the offer.
“I don’t think I’ve even played in 45 degrees celcius, let alone that,” Kirk told Golf Australia from her home in Wichita, Kansas. “I don’t know what 49’s going to be like!”
The ANA Inspiration is customarily played in April as the season’s first major, but it was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that the players will get a completely different look at Rancho Mirage.
“Usually when we go there in April it’s been overseeded with rye grass and in mint condition with fast, dry greens. It is doing to be different course conditions and throw the heat on top, it’s going to be a totally different week with a lot of unknowns for everyone. As long as you try and recover at night as best you can and stay hydrated during the day that’s going to be two of the critical keys to have a good week.’’
Kirk texted Tess, whom she says “doesn’t handle the heat well at all”, but his first reaction was to say that he would not take a cart other than in the practice rounds. “I think there’s a bit of pride in there,” she said. “But I would imagine a lot of caddies will be feeling it and taking a kart.”
The 38-year-old Queenslander, a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour, says the hottest round of gold she ever played was a 110-degree day in Wichita at the 2001 US Amateur. “It was unbelievable,” she said. “That was humidity as well, and I was drinking a Gatorade on even holes and water every other hole and it was just pouring out obviously. It’s going to be 120 next Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s unheard of for me.’’
Kirk finished top-10 recently in Arkansas and also played well at the women’s Open Championship at Royal Troon, where two late bogeys cost her. But she has been around long enough to stay patient, and she is by her own judgment playing the best golf of her life.
She is in her 17th season on the LPGA Tour and she continues to chase a goal of logging 20 years on the biggest tour in women’s golf. “I’m old enough to be some of these rookies’ mom!’’ she said.
“I think my game’s the best it’s ever been. Ball-striking wise, I’m hitting it further than I have before. Part of that’s equipment, as well, but I think my mechanics have improved a lot in the last five years, and my short game’s better than it ever has been, too.
“In the back of my mind I’ve said that I’d like to play 20 years out here, but I was talking to my coach today and I said ‘you know what? If I’m still healthy and enjoying it after year 20 I might play an extra few years’. Right now, it’s a year at a time, but I’d love to get to 20.”
Kirk said experience now played a part for her. “I look at Phil Mickelson just turning 50 this year and he’s playing some of his best golf, too. I think if you keep yourself fit and you still enjoy it there’s no reason why you can’t be competitive and still win. Honestly, the win (the Thornberry Creek Classic) in 2017 I think reinvigorated me a little bit. Not that I was thinking of retiring then, but certainly that would have been my 14th year on tour, and a long time between the second win and the third win, but it was a boost to say ‘you know what? I’ve still got what it takes to compete’.’’
Kirk is one of five Australians in the field, joining Minjee Lee, Su Oh, Hannah Green and amateur Gabriela Ruffels on Thursday night (Australian EST).
Her improved form comes from an enforced five-month break after the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, most of it spent at home “doing normal house stuff” in Wichita with her husband, Tom Kirk. Gardening, cooking, cleaning were all on the list for a person who generally has spent only 15 weeks a year at her home.
“I love to pay fun, social golf and I did a lot of that with Tom,” she said. “We went out every weekend and nine holes during the week. I did a lot of practice the first two months, but I didn’t want to push that burn-out button.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was ready to compete and know that I wasn’t able to compete and get frustrated. I’m a very competitive person and I knew it would take a little time to get back to tour golf and I knew we’d probably have a three-week heads up as to when we’d be playing. I knew that as long as I’ve been playing I can pretty much get ready in two weeks.
“So I took the time, and just relaxed and stepped back and made me appreciate what I have and kind of slowed things down, because usually we’re 100 miles an hour. I plan out my whole year in January, pick my schedule and for the most part stick to it. When everything’s dictated like that, I tried to take advantage of it and really and truly unwind.”