Locals gals confident ahead of Sime Darby challenge

Jean Chua and Kelly Tan with Michelle Wie and Natalie Gulbis pose for a group photo opportunity / © The ClubHouse

Kuala Lumpur: Home course advantage will be both a boon and bane for the four Malaysians in action at the US$1.9 million Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia, which tees off tomorrow at the East Course of the Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club.

Jean Chua, Kelly Tan, Aretha Pan and Ainil Johani Bakar will line-up against 68 of the world’s top lady golfers in the second edition of the marquee event and will find themselves in the headlines as local golf fans come out in the droves to support their favourite golfing idols in a field which includes the top ten players in the LPGA Money List.

Jean and Kelly earned sponsor exemptions to the event while Aretha and Ainil booked their places by finishing two top in a two-day local qualifier.

For the locals, the 72-hole tournament will be a repeat of last year’s edition when the burden of  national expectation proved both a motivating as well as a pressurising factor. While Kelly did well to ride on the goodwill to finish as the best domestic finisher in the field with a tied-32th finis, Jean will attest to the fact that home pressure played a part in her spectacular collapse, as she dropped an eleven on the closing hole, seeing a top-ten finish go begging at the last possible moment.

Kelly accepts that while hopes will definitely be on her this week to repeat her 2010 performance, she is not concerned about the local favourite tag just yet. “I guess not. I just want to play my best and we’ll see over the weekend. I can’t tell how I’m going to play but I’m pretty confident of my game and I hope I can translate my form back in the States here. I’m sure there will be a little bit of pressure but I’m not going to stress myself about it just yet,” said the 18-year-old, who reaffirmed her status as the nation’s top amateur by winning the Malaysian Ladies Amateur Open in August.

For Jean, memories of that eventful final day almost a year ago remain fresh in the mind, even if she can afford to drop a joke or two about it. “I’ll definitely try not to make a eleven on the last hole,” joked the 24-year-old LPGA Futures Tour player, who expects a large following including her parents over the week.

“Of course you like to perform well for your fans and everything but at the end of the day, you’re playing for yourself and it’s about your own performance out there and doing well for yourself. Definitely, my parents will be watching and many others to will be following me over the next couple of days, so I’m far more excited than feeling nervous or under pressure.”

For Ainil Johani, the thought of making her debut in the tournament in front of a partisan and expectant local crowd is a tad worrying. “Enjoying my game is going to be my priority but I am a bit nervous and scared about playing in front of a home crowd, I guess its something I have to get out of the system as quickly as I can tomorrow.

“I’m used to playing with the better players back in the US circuits, so there’s no pressure there but nonetheless playing with the Christina Kim and Brittany Lang tomorrow is going to be something new and different. I’m looking forward to it and learn something from it, I guess,” said the rookie professional, who took the bold step to take her game States side at the end of last year after a successful amateur career.

The more reserved of the rest, Aretha is hoping to make the best out of her second shot at the event, having struggled to  find her rhythm last year. “Much confident than last year but still a tad excited by the occasion,” shared the Malaysian Amateur Open champion, who has perhaps clocked in the most hours on the course, thanks in part to the Sime Darby Development Programme held in the run-in to the tournament. “I’m happy with my game and just staying calm and collected, with no added pressure on myself,” said the 17-year-old Sabahan.

And what are their personal targets? “I will like to shoot under par in all four rounds but a top five finish will always be nice, if not ambitious,” Jean pronounced. Kelly, on the other hand, is aiming for an improvement from 2010. “Top-20 but if I can do better, I’ll be really happy,” she adds.

Ainil on the other hand, wants to stay modest ahead of the challenge. “It’s my first time, so I’m going to give myself a break and not put too much pressure on myself. I’m not feeling nervous now but I’m sure the realisation will hit me when I get up in the morning,” expressed the 21-year-old.