Arguably one of the most influential people in sport, rising teenage sensation Lydia Ko, will headline a top-flight field trying to stop hometown hero Karrie Webb from achieving Australian Open history for the second time in her career.
Ko, still just 17, has been described as the next star capable of transcending golf – having been named one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” – and is the talk of the international scene following her incredible 2014 season on the LPGA Tour.
The New Zealand superstar is breaking down the barriers of what young people can achieve in elite sport, having earned $3.5 million this year, including a $1.55 million payday in November described as the biggest single earning in women’s golfing history.
As she aims to win in her first major and perhaps set her sights on becoming world No.1 in 2015, the golfing world is waiting to see Ko’s next step – and it’s a journey that will begin at Royal Melbourne on February 19 next year.
Ko will be the star attraction in the hottest field Australian golf has seen this summer, made up of 15 of the world’s top 30 ranked players, a combined 11 major winners and five former No.1s.
Aside from world No.3 Ko, Chinese dynamo Shanshan Feng (No.5) and Korean fan favourite So Yeon Ryu (No.7) will be the other players to watch in a chasing pack for Webb’s title that bats even deeper, in terms of international stars, than the one that competed for Rory McIlroy’s trophy at this year’s men’s Australian Open.
From a flag-bearing perspective, this year’s Open will be the first tournament rising Australian star Minjee Lee will appear in as a professional, fresh off her impressive performance earlier this month at the qualifying tournament for the LPGA Tour, which netted the 18-year-old from Perth a ticket on women’s golf’s richest circuit.
They will all be aiming to dethrone Webb, who is looking to turn the same trick she completed in 2008 – when she successfully retained the Australian Open title she won in 2007 – and also etch her name into the record books by winning her sixth Australian Open crown.
Webb clinched her fifth title at last year’s event at Victoria Golf Club, coming from five shots behind on the final day to pull off a shock win with a vintage display.
Ko finished equal third last year, just two shots behind Webb, and also finished top three the year before, making this year’s event a chance for redemption in a country that holds special significance for her, given she won her first professional event on the ALPG Tour in New South Wales in 2012.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back to play the Melbourne sandbelt,” Ko said. “I have great memories of playing in Australia and it’s always nice to play in front of an audience who shows us such great support,” she said.
The Australian Open is co-sanctioned by the LPGA and Ladies European Tour, which helps organisers attract high-quality fields, and tournament director Trevor Herden said the event had delivered again.
“We have 15 of the top 30 players in the world rankings coming – it’s a great testament to the reputation we’ve built up in recent years,” he said.
“We’ve got so many women who could legitimately lay claim to our title – and that’s including a host of young Australian women.”
All four days of the event will be broadcast live on ABC, with Royal Melbourne’s composite course set to host the event for the second time in four editions.
Minister for major events, tourism and sport, John Eren, believes the elite field reinforces the reputation of Melbourne’s sandbelt as a top destination for golfing tourism.