England's cold shoulder for Europe's women

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The Independent Online

Not only is the Benson and Hedges International traditionally the first big golfing week of the season in Britain, it is the first of four tournaments in five weeks in England on the European Tour. Just like The Belfry, Wentworth, Woburn and the Forest of Arden are all familiar venues for men's golf.

But on the Ladies' European Tour, it is a very different story. The women are in Killarney for the Irish Open this weekend and will visit Scotland and Wales but will not be setting up camp in England at all this season.

The lack of support from sponsors and venues for the women's game in England is bewildering given Britain's role as the bedrock of the tour when there were over 20 tournaments on the schedule in the late 1980s.

The women's circuit in Europe has been in crisis as often as it has changed its acronym. The leading players mostly head to the LPGA Tour in America, where overseas players like Sweden's Annika Sorenstam and Australia's Karrie Webb dominate.

Four years ago there were only 10 events on the European schedule but of late the tour has consolidated itself into a vital proving ground for the young stars of European golf – continental European golfers that is. While Spain's Raquel Carriedo won the Order of Merit last year, three rookies stole the show.

Suzann Pettersen, Paula Marti and Karine Icher won five times. The 15 tournaments on this year's schedule include new events in Norway, in part due to Pettersen, and two in Spain on the back of the success of Carriedo and Marti.

Pettersen, a 22-year-old from Oslo, won the rookie of the year award and is permanently followed round by a Norwegian television crew. Marti, also 22 from Barcelona, is the daughter of a famous Spanish portrait artist but it is her striking image that is being noticed.

She has been likened to Anna Kournikova but, having won twice already, she can laugh off the comparison. Mette Hageman, a playing director of the tour, has a better analogy. "Paula is our Seve," Hageman said. "She's talented, ambitious, a born winner and to top it all off, she is great looking too."

This year's rookies include Naima Ghilain, a 24-year-old from Belgium who won the qualifying school, Maria Boden, 23, who turned pro last summer and won three times in six starts on the Swedish Tour, and Karen-Margrethe Juul, a 25-year-old Dane who was the 1997 British Amateur Strokeplay champion before attending college in America.

With Lottery funding helping young British amateurs, many, like Rebecca Hudson, will not be turning professional until after the Curtis Cup in August. "Perhaps that will help to raise the profile of the game in Britain," said Robin Gibson, commercial director of the LET.

"The reality, however, as the continent has realised, is that we offer fantastic value. People playing in the pro-am this week at Killarney were genuinely shocked not just by the quality of the golf but by the warm welcome they received from the players.

"We have two tremendous shop windows this season with the Weetabix British Open moving to Turnberry and the WPGA Championship at Royal Porthcawl. Hopefully some potential sponsors will get there and see what we have to offer. We have had some interest but the key is converting that into a confirmed deal.

"Women's sport does not have the highest profile but look what Bend it like Beckham has done for women's football. Perhaps we need something similar."

Pettersen, who earlier this year had a memorable battle with Webb at the Australian Open before losing in a playoff, and Marti are well up in the Solheim Cup standings and could receive wild cards from captain Dale Reid.

"Some of the more experienced players are going to have to pull their socks up if they are to make the team," Reid said. "I'd be delighted to have a strong mix of young players with the experienced ones to chaperone them."

The match in Minneapolis may be overshadowed by the re-arranged Ryder Cup the following week but the following match in Sweden has been brought forward to 2003 to avoid future clashes.