Big 3 wary of chasing pack

American Stacy Lewis, 29, will be hoping that experience gives her an edge as she seeks to retain her title here this week.

SINGAPORE - Along the opulent corridors of the Sentosa Golf Club, the Big Three of women's golf exchange courteous nods, life tips and gossip with their younger LPGA Tour rivals.

But as soon as they step on the course, world No. 1 Park In Bee, Suzann Pettersen (No. 2) and Stacy Lewis (No. 3) are in no mood to mentor.

The "us versus them" mentality is hardly a surprise in a sport where every player - from greenest rookie Lydia Ko, 16, to veteran Karrie Webb, 39 - is gunning for the same prize.

"A lot of the tee shots, the girls are kind of asking, what do you do here, what do you do there - I don't want to give away too many secrets," said Lewis, 29, who defends her HSBC Women's Champions title this week.

The pressure of dealing with an exuberant chasing pack - who hit the ball harder and are powered by the latest drivers - is increasing.

Of the Tour's top 10 longest hitters, six are under the age of 26.

In recent times, Ko, along with fellow starlets Lexi Thompson, 19, and Jessica Korda, 20, are closing the gap with the hardened pros.

Korda said: "Golf is an ageless sport, it doesn't matter if you're 45, 16 or 17.

"If you're mature, if your golf game is out there, you can win at any age, any level."

Last season, the Big Three accounted for six of the opening 10 Tour titles and all five Majors.

But in the last 10 events, only Pettersen has won once - the same as Korda and one fewer than Thompson.

"When they are young and have nothing to lose and nothing to fear, that's when they play the best," noted Park, 25, who won three Majors last year.

"That's why we keep working hard to be as fit and as strong as the younger girls."

While the latest crop generally use big drives to attack longer holes, the veterans bank on their familiarity with courses for a competitive edge.

"We can play a little bit smarter because of our knowledge," admitted Lewis who has recorded a top-10 finish in 13 straight tournaments.

No wonder the Ohio native is hopeful of becoming the first back-to-back champion at the HSBC Women's Champions, which tees off from today till Sunday.

"A thinker's course where you don't just rip driver off every tee," was her apt description of the 6,035m Serapong set-up, known for its tight fairways and zippy greens which do not favour the young big-hitters.

Even Ko, whose talent makes the game look deceptively easy at times, was slightly fazed.

She said: "My mum said the winning score is like 20-something under and I was like, wow, is that actually on another golf course?"

To be more exact, Lewis' 15-under 273 gave her a one-shot victory over Choi Na Yeon at last year's edition.

This week, the US$1.4 million (S$1.77 million) showpiece could see a rare shift within the Big Three.

Park's 46-week reign at No. 1 will end if she finishes lower than third and Norway's Pettersen triumphs.

As an added spice, the South Korean has failed to finish in the top 20 in all six previous editions. Pettersen, 32, said: "A new week, a new opportunity and, hopefully, a new world No. 1."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg


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