Fearless amateurs take stage at Carnoustie

Sophia Popov during Round 1 of the Ricoh Women's British Open at Carnoustie.

Sophia Popov during Round 1 of the Ricoh Women's British Open at Carnoustie.

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sixteen-year-old amateur Lauren Taylor had to put three-time Women’s British Open winner Sherri Steinhauer in her place on Carnoustie’s 18th tee in the opening round of the $2.5 million Ricoh Women’s British Open.

It’s a moment that speaks volumes for how far amateur golfers have come in recent years.

Taylor waited until fellow English player Melissa Reid teed off before stepping onto the tee. Steinhauer questioned her young playing companion about the order of play. That’s when Taylor had to remind the 49-year-old veteran that she had parred the previous hole while Steinhauer had made bogey.

A rueful smile crossed the eight-time LPGA winner’s face as she stepped into the background to allow Taylor to take her rightful place. Veterans taking a backseat to hot-shot young rookies is becoming de rigueur these days.

Taylor might still be eligible for junior golf tournaments, but she didn’t look out of place alongside the two established stars. Indeed, the amateur from Woburn Golf Club, Ian Poulter’s home club, outscored her playing companions. Her 2-over 74 was one stroke better than Reid’s 75 and a four-shot improvement on Steinhauer’s limp 78.

“I felt nervous on the first tee because I knew I was playing in the Women’s British Open,” said Taylor, the reigning Ladies’ British Amateur champion, “but I hit a nice tee shot and a 6-iron to 6 feet and made birdie on the first. After that it was like I was playing in any other tournament.”

That’s a common refrain from amateurs these days. Two weeks ago 20-year-old Tom Lewis became the first amateur since Sir Michael Bonallack in 1968 to lead the Open Championship. Three years ago, Chris Wood finished fifth in the Open at Royal Birkdale while still an amateur.

Indeed, the last time the men played an Open here, in 2007, Rory McIlroy became the story of the opening day. His bogey-free 68 signaled what many of us already knew, that he had the right stuff to contend with the best professionals. He’s since proved us right – in spades.

Taylor’s score should have been better. A double bogey at the par-3 16th cost her dearly. Her 3-wood tee shot into a greenside bunker was one of only two bad shots she hit in the opening round. The other came at the par-5 14th, where she thinned her 3-wood approach into one of the Spectacle bunkers and made bogey.

“I only made two bad swings all day,” Taylor said. “I played really well on the front nine and didn’t finish well. But I feel as if I belong out here.”

She does.

So, too, does Germany’s Sophia Popov. She went around the Carnoustie layout in 2-under 70, a score could have been better if not for four dropped shots, including two in the last four holes.

Her score might not seem like a big deal considering it put her three shots off Brittany Lincicome’s early lead. However, Popov is playing in only her second professional tournament. She dipped her feet into professional golf last month when she teed it up in the Swiss Open on the Ladies European Tour and missed the cut.

Popov is the highest-ranked amateur in the field, at No. 6 on the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. She has just completed her first year at USC, where she had five top-7 finishes in her first seven events, including victory in the Pac-10/SEC Challenge.

Danielle Kang also looks comfortable among the world’s elite this week. The reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion returned an even-par 72 that would have been two shots better if not for a double bogey on the final hole.

Kang’s ready for the money game after two years at Pepperdine. She will turn pro after defending her U.S. Women’s Amateur title next month.

Taylor, Popov and Kang are three of the six amateurs in the field this week, along with 2010 British Women’s Amateur champion Pamela Pretswell of Scotland, England’s Nikki Foster and Stephanie Meadow of Northern Ireland.

It’s been 44 years since an amateur won a women’s major. Catherine Lacoste holds that distinction after victory in the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open.

An amateur might not win this week, but don’t be surprised if it happens sometime in the not-too-distant future.

These girls have no fear.

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