Golf: McKay cast in the Rose role

Paul Trow finds the women's game also has young heroines creating a bright future
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The Independent Online
JUSTIN ROSE has a lot to answer for. Once upon a time, sporting juniors could find their feet without attracting so much as a sideways glance from their elders and betters, let alone spectators.

Nowadays, though, no event is complete without the obligatory box-office wunderkind. Next week's Weetabix Women's British Open championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne's, just down the road from the scene of Rose's exploits in the Open last month at Birkdale, is no exception even though the surprise package is more likely to be a young professional, as teenage amateurs will be thin on the ground.

One tiro who could turn a few heads is the 23-year-old Scot Mhairi (pronounced Var-ri) McKay. Exactly a year ago, McKay took her first faltering steps in the paid ranks by failing to make the cut in the same tournament at Sunningdale. Twelve months later, buoyed by an exceptional showing in the recent US Women's Open and approaching her first anniversary as a professional, she is a much more formidable proposition.

Her final placing at the poetically-named Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin was a tie for seventh, a slight anti-climax after playing the last round alongside the eventual winner, Se Ri Pak of South Korea, and even leading on a couple of occasions. But McKay, twice a Curtis Cup player and a graduate of Tiger Woods's Alma Mater, San Francisco's Stanford University, has no regrets. "It was my first major championship - the premier event on the LPGA calendar and an unbelievably challenging golf course," she said. "Everything seemed to click that week - my long game was great and I made some putts. I wasn't at all disappointed - it was a thrill to lead the tournament and play in the final pair on Sunday. If you'd said to me beforehand that I'd tie for seventh in the US Open I'd have been ecstatic.

"Overall it was a confidence booster and hopefully I can build on it. The last time I played at Lytham, though, was four years ago when I lost in the first round of the British women's amateur championship to Catriona Matthew, but at least she was the eventual winner."

A US Open repeat this week would dramatically improve McKay's current position of 71st on America's LPGA money list, and guarantee her immediate future. "The top 90 at the end of this season will be exempt for 1999 but apart from the Weetabix I'm not in any other events and I might need as much as another $15,000 to secure my card.

"I'd like to play in the Compaq Open in Sweden the week after next but if I'm given an invitation to the corresponding tournament in America I'll have to go there as it might be the last one I'll get this year.

"Being a professional is fun, but it was difficult at first. I only got a conditional card when I went through the LPGA qualifying process towards the end of last year. For that reason, I didn't get into any tournaments at the start of the season. I had to wait until May before people started taking time off."

This week, McKay, who comes from Uddingston, just outside Glasgow, is playing in the McDonald's WPGA Championship of Europe at Gleneagles, and if she does brilliantly there and at Lytham she could be faced by an embarrassing clash between golf and family duties next month. "Fiona [her sister and a former Scottish international golfer] is getting married on the Friday of the Solheim Cup. I'm going to be a bridesmaid and I've already had the dress fitting," she said.

"I haven't got any qualifying points for the team and I think it's highly unlikely that Pia Nilsson [the European captain] will make me one of her five wild-card picks. But basically I would not be available because my family comes first and the wedding has been arranged for a long time.

"Whatever happens over these two weeks, I can't really see Pia asking me this time, but I'd love to play in the Solheim Cup in years to come." With youth and ability on her side, that looks inevitable.