Johannesburg – In terms of South African golf, Ashleigh Simon seems to have been around for ages, yet the truth is she’s still only 24 with a potentially long and lucrative career ahead of her, especially now that she has a coveted LPGA Tour card in her golf bag.
Whiz kid “Ash” won the WPGA South African Women’s Open as a precocious 14-year-old – the only amateur to have done so and by far the youngest – and that was close to 10 years ago. As for the numerous wins in her teens, both in amateur events and as an amateur playing in pro events, well, there was never enough room on the family mantelpiece to accommodate all the silverware.
So, yes, she has been around for what seems like ages, although she now starts a new, exciting chapter in her golf with her playing privileges secure for the multi-million dollar American circuit.
This month’s breakthrough at the final stage of the LPGA Qualifying School was her seventh try since she turned professional the day after her 18th birthday in 2007.
“They offered 16 cards for 2008 and I finished 17th, so I got a provisional card. I played 14 events, which was a lot, but I didn’t make enough to earn a card, so I went back to Q-School and got my full card for 2009. Again, I lost my status and I went back to Europe for 2010. I tried every year, but I wasn’t successful until now,” said the Royal Johannesburg & Kensington golfer in a conference call on Friday.
So, seven tries, what was different about Q-School this time round?
“I think mentally I was the strongest yet. Mentally I was in a different space. I played well this year on the Ladies European Tour (she was twice a runner-up), despite my shortened season after coming back from hip surgery. I played really well in my last few tournaments and that definitely boosted my confidence going into Q-School, knowing that I could do it.
“Q-School is pretty much the most daunting week in any golfer’s life. For me, the pressure is much worse at Q-School than at any Major I’ve played in. You want it so badly and you know there are only 20 spots and you know that if you don’t finish in the top 20, you don’t have a place to work for the next season, although I was fortunate knowing that I had the Ladies European Tour (LET) to fall back on.
“You play five rounds over two courses, and what I had going for me was that I’d been there many times. This year I approached Q-School very differently: I was calm and I wasn’t nervous. For once I didn’t treat it like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Q-School, I’ve got to do this!’ I treated the week like it was any other golf tournament. It wasn’t such a big deal. I think that’s why I did so well, because I was so relaxed about the whole thing.”
However, after posting a 67 and a 68, Ash slipped to a 74 in round three – “for some reason my swing didn’t rock up with me that day!” she exclaimed – and ultimately ended up sharing 22nd place with three other players, which meant a play-off for just one spot.
“The first thing I thought was that I still had a chance. I had come all that way and I wasn’t going to give up. I said to myself: ‘Ash, you’ve been here before; you have six years experience on Tour and you’ve won tournaments; you can do this’.
“Two girls birdied the ninth but I told myself that it didn’t matter and then I birdied the 10th so it was game on. I knew, standing on the 11th, this was it.
“It’s a tough hole to go for in two. For us girls, it’s a long, gutsy shot because there is water all along the left up to the green. But I’d hit the shot before and I said to David (Buhrai, her caddie and boyfriend) that I was going for it. It was now or never. I hit a great drive and a three-wood that flew the pin in the front of the green. I had about 26 metres to the hole from the back of the green. So it was a really long putt. As it would turn out, I needed a birdie to get that one spot and the card and I hit my first putt to about six feet, and then calmly holed that one for the birdie. I didn’t even feel the pressure, and then, of course, it was celebration time.
“Even though I didn’t win in Europe this year, I still finished 13th in the Order of Merit in just 10 events. That has been about my best result after playing a full season. I’m extremely happy with how I performed, especially coming back after the surgery.
“I feel strong again and that surgery, although it meant missing a lot of golf, was a blessing in disguise.”
Simon plans to keep her LET playing privileges – which means teeing up in a minimum of six events on that tour next year.
And there’s also the new Sunshine Ladies Tour, to be held in February and March, to take into consideration.
“So, looking at dates there’s quite a bit to work out.” But, like she said, she certainly won’t be out of work next year, which could turn out to be a big one for her. Her old voice message on her cellphone may just turn out to be more appropriate than ever: “Hi, it’s Ash, I’m on the golf course making cash ...”
SA No1 Lee-Anne Pace, so dominant in Europe this year, earned herself a provisional LPGA card at Q-School, but a third South African, 23-year-old Paula Reto, impressively tied for 13th to secure her playing privileges next year. Little is known of Reto in this country. She took up golf as a 15-year-old in 2005, which more or less coincided with her family’s move to the United States. Since then, she’d apparently improved rapidly before going on to gain All-American college golf honours while at university.