Mel Reid and Georgia Hall among the big successes in ladies’ golf in 2020

Sophia Popov, Emily Pedersen and the British duo of Mel Reid and Georgia Hall were among the success stories of a difficult, and often traumatic, 2020 in ladies golf. Richard Kaufman reflects on the season …

There could have been a point in history, not that long ago, when a pandemic such as the one the world is enduring would have meant women’s professional golf season would have ended in March.

I fear what would have been of the Ladies European Tour schedule if the LPGA and LET tours had not joined forces a year ago. It’s fair to say the great efforts from many of the game’s administrators were richly rewarded.

As in other years, women’s golf in 2020 brought us some of the best stories in the game. Before getting into the details and lauding the achievements of those that shone in such a difficult year, it is worth pondering the impact of absentees.

Like in the men’s game, the return of golf after the Covid-19 break did so in the absence of fans. But unlike the men’s game, the resumption happened without some of the game’s biggest stars, those from Asia.

With that thought in mind, let’s start at the end. The 2020 CME Tour Championship with the world No 1 making birdies at five of the last seven holes to take the largest first prize in the women’s game and with it the money list. The fact Jin Young Ko achieved that in just four LPGA Tour starts highlights some of the stardust the tour had been missing in much of its return in the summer.

Ko, winner of two majors last year, did not play in any of the first three majors in 2020 and when she finally played the US Women’s Open in December, she missed out on the winning score by just one shot.

The only player that finished better than Ko at the Country Club to win the final major of the year, was A Lim Kim. Like many, I speculated who might win the US Women’s Open and like most, I assume, not for one second did A Lim’s name cross my mind.

But to finish it in such style, with birdies at her final three holes in tricky conditions, is testament to her game and the depth in quality of the Korean Tour. Kim is now up to 30th in the Rolex Rankings, the one, two, three are the same three that finished top three on the LPGA money list – Jin Young Ko, Sei Young Kim and Inbee Park.

Sei Young won the Women’s PGA by five shots and when she’s on, she looks unbeatable. I don’t think there will be harder team to make in 2021 than the Korean women’s Olympic golf team, with seven players in the world’s top 14 right now.

Of course, only four can play for the gold medal in Japan. Lim is outside the top 25, as is the other Korean major champion of 2020. Mirim Lee made the most of the controversial wall behind the green on the 18th at Rancho Mirage and chipped her way to glory at the ANA,

Lim was missing from the final event of the season because she won her major as a non-LPGA member, and it was the same story for Sophia Popov. If you are reading this, the chances are you have read the arguments around this subject.

For Popov to have missed that and the ANA Inspiration was an own goal for the women’s game which I hope is rectified for the future. Was there a better story than Popov’s in golf, male or female, in 2020? You would be hard pressed to find a better one.

A player who had struggled with illness and injury, who weeks earlier was caddying for another player, who did not even have a LPGA or LET card, emerging with the AIG Women’s Open trophy on the stunning links of Royal Troon. Her journey cannot be summarised in a review like this and her post-tournament interviews, such as the one she did on the Sky Sports golf podcast go into greater detail.

I know from all your feedback to the event, how much her story brought real joy in a year when the feelgood has been in short supply. I had always kept a close eye on Sophia’s career after sitting next to her on a bus back from the course at the Helsingborg Open in Sweden in 2015.

She told me then, briefly, of her fitness issues. We chatted again a few weeks later when she was commentating on the Solheim Cup in Germany. She is a charismatic person, a popular figure, a talented golfer and I have my fingers crossed that I will get to commentate on her playing in the 2021 Solheim Cup at Inverness Golf Club.

That venue, by the way, is where she was caddying for her good friend Anne van Dam just weeks before becoming a major champion. Some story!

Catriona Matthew’s European team should be a strong one if the performances of some of the continent’s best players in 2020 are anything to go by. Yes, the Americans can turn to Danielle Kang, who came out of lockdown firing. There were also wins for Ally Ewing and a couple of veterans in Stacy Lewis and Angela Stanford. And, given her talent, in Nelly Korda they have a player who can challenge the best in the game.

But the Euros are looking healthy heading into the new year. Georgia Hall added to her Women’s Open victory of 2018 with a first win on American soil at the Cambia Portland Classic in September, and she came close to adding to that win later in the year in both Saudi Arabia and Florida.

I cannot help but think that Georgia’s cause was aided by the emergence of the Rose Ladies Series, events that were a lifeline for English female golfers before the return of the LET and LPGA. Justin Rose and his wife, Kate made a generous gesture that had a big ripple effect. Just such a shame it all ended with a fire that meant the final at Wentworth that had to be abandoned. But that’s 2020 for you!

Perhaps the most heartening of victories from a British female in 2020 came from Mel Reid. Catriona Matthew did not pick Mel for the 2019 Solheim Cup team and Reid had to settle for being one of the vice-captains. When Matthew got the job for 2021, Mel sent her a text; “I promise you I won’t make it as bad a decision for you this time”.

There are no guarantees but it looks that Reid is living up to her side of the bargain. If she shows the form that saw her win the Shoprite LPGA Classic in October along with a few other near-misses, then it is hard to imagine her being left out.

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One player that looks nailed on for a Solheim Cup place is Emily Pedersen. The South Africa Women’s Open was the last Ladies European Tour event before the shutdown. While Alice Hewson correctly took the plaudits, Pedersen finished tied for seventh. It would prove to be a significant result.

It was the first time the Dane had finished inside the top 10 of an event since her rookie performance at the 2017 Solheim Cup. Pedersen struggled in that match and her confidence bombed. A fantastic ball-striker, her game deserted her and she wondered if it would ever return.

Like Popov, she was much lauded as an amateur but unlike Popov, her first years as pro had been a steady continuation of that rise. The tears and frustrations of missed cut after missed cut over two and more years, will make 2020 even sweeter for Emily and her family.

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Off the back of that top 10 in South Africa, she worked hard in the enforced break. She returned at Scotland and was the surprise name in the playoff. That was followed by her best major finish at Troon and a first win since 2015 seemed on the cards.

But nobody could have predicted four wins, not even the Pedersen family! The Ladies European Tour looks to finally be in a healthy position and Pedersen was the standout star.

A happy new year to you all and look forward to some more great stories in 2021

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