Tait: Keep an eye on the amateurs at Hoylake

Lydia Ko hits a tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the Canadian Women's Open.

Lydia Ko hits a tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the Canadian Women's Open.

HOYLAKE, England – The world’s elite have turned up for the $2.5 million Ricoh Women’s Open Championship, and an amateur tournament seems to have broken out.

It’s not often that a 15-year-old amateur takes center stage at a major championship, but there will be many an eye on New Zealand’s Lydia Ko this week at Royal Liverpool. She is one of 10 amateurs – yes, 10 – in the field.

Ko is the headline act, and that’s backed up by the numbers. British betting firm William Hill lists her as a 25-1 shot to win, which makes her the joint 10th favorite along with Cristie Kerr. Those odds come as no surprise. Not only has Ko topped the World Amateur Golf Ranking for nearly two years, but she has won two professional tournaments this year.

The New Zealander made history earlier this season when she became the youngest player to win a professional tournament. She was just 14 when she won the New South Wales Open. She proved that victory was no fluke by winning the Canadian Women’s Open last month. Ko made history on that occasion too, becoming the youngest winner of an LPGA event.

The latter performance had seasoned veterans singing her praise.

“You can’t quite believe how good she is at 15,” said Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, the 2009 Women’s British Open champion. “Just the composure she showed on the last day. She actually went away from the field. It’s slightly embarrassing to be beaten by a 15-year-old. She’s obviously a fantastic player with huge potential.”

Laura Davies is making her 32nd appearance in the Women’s British Open. The evergreen English player has seen a lot of great talent over the years, but even she is impressed by the precocious teenager.

“She won the Canadian Open and made it look easy,” Davies said. “She’s a great talent. To win a pro event at 15 is pretty unprecedented. The calmness she showed, just the way she conducted herself, was brilliant.”

Ko isn’t the only brilliant amateur in this week’s field. Five members of the victorious Great Britain & Ireland Curtis Cup team are in the field. World No. 8 Charley Hull leads the way. The 16-year-old English player is making her second major start, after a T-38 finish in the Kraft Nabisco Championship early in the year. Curtis Cup teammates Amy Boulden, Leona Maguire, Bronte Law and Holly Clyburn also are in the draw.

Joining Ko and the GB&I Curtis Cup stars are English Stroke Play champion Alexandra Peters and runner-up Charlotte Thompson, England International player Emily Taylor and Jing Yan of China. Taylor, 17, who earned her spot through a qualifier, gets a prize draw alongside Davies and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda.

Ko plays alongside Alexis Thompson in the first two rounds in what is one of the plum draws of the first two days. However, the Curtis Cup stars find themselves in pretty good company, too. Law tees it up with Juli Inkster and Carin Koch. Boulden plays with Natalie Gulbis and Momoko Ueda. Meanwhile, Clyburn is paired with 2004 champion Karen Stupples and Angela Stanford.

No amateur has won the Women’s British Open. France’s Catherine Lacoste was the last amateur to win a women’s major. She won the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open.

The weather forecast for Hoylake calls for strong breezes, and the talk here is of a winning score of 8 over par. Such conditions would normally rule out teenage amateurs, but Ko, Hull and the rest are not normal amateurs.

Don’t be surprised if one of the 10 unpaid players is in the mix come Sunday.

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