Malaysians ready to slug it out

National amateur Michelle Koh and professionals Aretha Pan, Ainil Johani Abu Bakar and Cindy Lee-Pridgen ©eddieputera|TCH
National amateur Michelle Koh and professionals Aretha Pan, Ainil Johani Abu Bakar and Cindy Lee-Pridgen ©eddieputera|TCH

Kuala Lumpur: Ahead of the first tee-off tomorrow, The ClubHouse speaks to the four Malaysian aspirants who will be carrying the nation’s hope in the fourth edition of the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia.

MICHELLE KOH

The ClubHouse [TCH]: Has the thought of making your debut in the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia finally sunk in and describe your mindset going into the tournament?
Michelle Koh [MK]: I am definitely excited to be part of the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia for the first time and I am looking forward to the experience. It is such a big stage and being only one of four Malaysians in the field definitely fills me with a lot of pride.

Having said that, I have not allowed myself to be carried away by the thought of actually playing the event. I’m keeping my expectations measured but more importantly, I am trying to stay as casual as possible and keep my emotions in check.

TCH: You have enjoyed a brilliant run of results coming into this week, claiming back-to-back victories at the Miri Amateur and Selangor Amateur Opens. In August, you also claimed consecutive victories when you triumphed in the China Amateur and Warren Ford Amateur Opens. How much of this is form?
MK: I’ve had a good year so far and hopefully, I can bring that good performance forward. Winning breeds confidence, and I admit that it is reassuring to have my game at its sharpest coming into this week. I’ve been putting really well, and I hope that I will remain calm and focused; not allowing myself to get ahead of the occasion and just play one shot at a time.

TCH: You mentioned during the national qualifier that the East Course of Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club poses a real mental challenge to you. Have you been able to overcome that?
MK: Yes, I have. The many hours spent practising there has definitely helped me better adapt to the layout and I’ve learned to manage the course as well. Together with my coaches from the Sime Darby LPGA Development Programme, we have developed some strategies as well as game plans, especially aimed at responding positively when faced with rough patches because it is important for me to regain my rhythm out there. I’ve also worked on adding a variety of shot-making skills to my bag as it is crucial to be creative on an undulating course like this.

TCH: What are your personal goals this week?
MK: Definitely to enjoy myself playing alongside world-class athletes —the last thing I want to do is to heap pressure on my shoulders and not experience a tournament of such stature. But more importantly, it would be a good barometer for me to gauge my skills and abilities going forward, and hopefully I can put on a good show for the whole Koh family!

AINIL JOHANI ABU BAKAR

TCH: You’re making your third straight appearance in the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia. Is the level of excitement the same?  
Ainil Johani [AJ]: Despite having played in 2011 and 2012, I’m still excited about playing in the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia but also feeling a little bit nervous because it is the one time in a year that I play at home and the expectations are always higher. I think I speak for the rest of the Malaysian girls when I say that we face a very different kind of pressure

TCH: You come into this tournament on the back of a very consistent season on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour (LAGT), including your first professional title at the Kenda Tires TLPGA Open. How important is that?
AJ: I like my form coming into this event because it is self-reassuring to know that I can compete and win at this level. The LPGA is definitely a few steps higher than the LAGT but the competitive mindset really helps. Having played a decent number of tournaments this year, I feel more confident about my game and it is comforting to know that I can execute all the shots I want. But more importantly, just being match fit compared to the last two appearances in the Sime Darby LPGA is crucial.

TCH: Anything you picked up from playing with these top-notch players in the last two appearances here?
AJ: I’ll admit that it is a learning experience for me because the more established players – they do think and play differently – even if our set of skills are the same. I naturally tend to get angry with myself when I hit a bad shot and sometimes, I try too hard to recover and dig myself deeper into trouble, so I need to manage my emotions better on the golf course.

TCH: For the second year running, your coach Tony Maloney will be your caddie for the tournament. How important is that?
AJ: I’m really honoured that Tony will be on my bag again this year. He is someone that I trust and it is very helpful to have him as a sounding board when I need to make decisions on what shots to play. His playing experience definitely comes handy because he knows how to keep me calm with his jokes and his overall feedback is invaluable during the week.

ARETHA PAN HERNG

TCH: Were you surprised to learn that you had received a late sponsor’s exemption to play in the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia after Jean Chua’s withdrawal?
Aretha Pan [AP]: To be honest, I did not expect to receive an exemption but I was definitely elated when I received the news once I had landed in Kota Kinabalu on my return from playing two LAGT events in in Chinese Taipei. The Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia has been a major springboard in my golfing career and I am extremely honoured to be given a chance to tee-off for the fourth consecutive year.

TCH: You finished as the best placed domestic finisher in tied 61st last year and it proved to be the turning point for your career. Are you happy with how you have fared in your rookie season so far?
AP: Finishing as the best Malaysian player last year definitely made my mind up that I was ready to move up into the paid ranks. I’m really grateful for the support I have received from sponsors namely Ping, Titleist, FootJoy, CrestLink, Sutera Harbour Resort and USANA in making this transition a lot more easier for me and I’m pleased that I’ve adjusted to life on Tour quickly and made the cuts at every single tournament so far.

TCH: How important is it for you to play in this tournament, given its elite status?
AP: Being able to pit my skills against the very best in women’s golf is not an opportunity that comes often and it will definitely help me raise my game to a higher level. I will head to Japan next month to play in the second stage of the Qualifying School there, so a good result here will definitely help me, both in terms of confidence and financially

TCH: What are the challenges you face as one of only four local challengers in this tournament?
AP: It is mentally challenging to play the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia because of the pressure cooker atmosphere. The local galleries always expect the Malaysians to turn up and perform strongly, so I feel I have to respond to their expectations as well but not get carried away at the same time.

TCH: Have you been working on any parts of your game recently?
AP: Focused on improving my 80-120m approach shots because it gives me a higher birdie chance but also spend time on my fitness and mental preparation. I have to be more patient in my decision-making process on the golf course and acclimatise to the conditions quickly. Ω

CINDY LEE-PRIDGEN

TCH: What made you decide to fly across the world to try and earn a place in the Sime Darby LPGA and actually make into the tournament proper?
Cindy Lee-Pridgen (CL): I think I had something to prove to myself—I felt that I can play my best and feel like I belonged—it would be an achievement in itself. But when I decided to actually come back and play in the qualifier—it was with a mission to earn my slot in the tournament proper. Leaving my two boys behind in Tulsa was pretty difficult, but I am really glad that I was able to come here, perform and basically, get the job done.

TCH: You finished a disappointing 60th in the first edition of the tournament back in 2010. What are some of the lessons you picked up from that appearance?
CL: I was really excited in 2011 when I got the sponsor’s exemption to play the maiden edition but my first-born was just five months old and it was pretty difficult because I was still nursing. Looking back, I was not mentally or physically prepared to handle the occasion and the other factors such as the weather-forced stoppages and having my performance heavily scrutinised definitely came into play.

The challenge for me this time other than managing jetlag [I did not manage to get much rest during my 15-hour flight from Chicago to Dubai] is nerves. I definitely have to keep a cool head out there, especially in an elite field such as this—it’s easy to get carried away but having played a few more LPGA events since, I blend in a little bit better and I am far more prepared for it. I expect myself to play well and having raked up the babysitting bills, I’m hoping for a good payday!

TCH: You returned to Tulsa immediately after the national qualifier. Have you been working on your game?
CL: I’ve got my bones checked and my muscles flexed out—just joking! I focused my attention on trying to get a little bit more distance on the drives and working on my alignment and took a few lessons towards that. I got myself into a proper stretching and fitness routine as well as a few chiropractic session and I’m feeling really good. The whole process has been very motivating to me because it has given me that sense of a greater challenge awaiting me, and I’m really excited.

TCH: Saw that you have the same caddie from the national qualifier on your bag this week. Does that help?
CL: Local knowledge is always good as he knows the course much better than I will. We’ve gone out and just strategise our game plan for the week and it looks promising. I can rely on him to give me the yardages and we have our friendly tiffs out there. The most important thing is for me to strike the ball well – there’s such a high premium on the narrow fairways here. Staying on the short stuff is one battle won.