Clayton: Su's epic journey long time brewing

Su Oh and Mike Clayton
Su Oh with caddie Mike Clayton.

My first memory of Su Oh was watching her as a twelve-year-old curiosity in the 2009 Australian Women’s Open at Metropolitan.

Unsurprisingly for one with no experience at that level, she shot an opening 79 but still had a chance to make the cut on Friday when she made a triple-bogey on the 13th hole, a hole I had designed only a couple of years earlier.

Our relationship was hardly off to a good start and we didn’t even know each other.

Four years later I was in Hobart looking at a site for a golf course and at the same time the Victorian state team was playing the Interstate Series at Royal Hobart. A friend asked me if I’d like to caddie in the finals against Western Australia and spoke to Su about it. She was to play Minjee Lee in the top match, but Su thought me “too scary” and instead I carried Julienne Soo’s bag.

By this point Su had just joined Metropolitan and was spending as much time on the same practice fairway as I had 30 years earlier. Inevitably we ran into each other and started playing holes together – her after school and me after work.

Then, early in 2014, she called asking for some advice on a caddie she had been assigned for the Australian Open at Victoria.

She didn’t want to use him and asked what she should do.

“How about I do it?”

“I’ll call back,” she said, then did10 minutes later.

“Would you mind?”

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered.”

“Great. Thanks. Let’s do it.”

Su shot 66 on Saturday and birdied the opening hole on Sunday to get to nine under par and tied with Karrie Webb, back on the first tee.

Bogeys at the next two holes finished any remote chance she had of winning and Webb went on to shoot a great round in the wind to win.

I enjoyed the week and she had, by then, come to realise I wasn’t so scary after all.

We did the Victorian Open the following week and then her first major, the Kraft Nabisco, in Palm Springs.

She was away a lot playing and going to school when she could, but clearly golf was the focus.

As a rule, emphasising golf at the expense of an education is a very bad idea – but if you are Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, Minjee Lee, Su Oh or Ryan Ruffels, the skills are so obviously a level ahead of the norm that treating golf as a job so early is justifiable and understandable.

She tuned pro in early 2015 and her first event was the Victorian Open at 13th Beach. We came to the 70th tee tied for the lead and bogeyed all three to lose to Marianne Skarpnord.

If there was a suggestion this stumbling finish would scar her, she dispelled that silliness by flying to the Gold Coast and making birdies at each of the the final four holes to win the Australian Masters. Her dad caddied, showing up my caddie finishing skills.

She had missed her card at the LPGA Tour School only two months earlier, but it seemed a formality she would play a year on the secondary Symetra Tour, make the top 10 and graduate to the LPGA.

Instead, she played terribly for almost all of last year, her confidence and belief slipping with each miserable result. I hadn’t seen her for months when we met up at the British Open at Turnberry and despite hitting the ball badly all week she at least made the cut. We had fun and she seemed in good spirits.

Still, nothing really improved back in America over the next three months and she came to the final hole of the second stage of the tour school in October needing to hole a 8m birdie putt just to advance to the finals. This was the same stage at which she had finished second only 12 months earlier and it was unfathomable she could miss such an easy step.

How was it possible she could play so poorly?

Instead, she made the putt and advanced to the finals where she finished 32nd. That wasn’t much good, either, as it did give her a lowly “number” guaranteeing her less than a handful of starts in 2016. Another year in the minor leagues beckoned and it’s purgatory for one so talented.

She was, however, exempt into the Australian Open at The Grange and it was at least a chance to make a decent cheque and improve her status.

An opening 69 on Thursday was solid, but Friday was one of those stumbling rounds where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Caddies can help a bit, but at some point you feel helpless to stop the bleeding. I’d felt it at 13th Beach, but somehow she made it through.

She was right on the cut line when she whiffed a difficult pitch from the rough at the par-five13th hole, but she got up and down from a tough spot and then played the next five holes without missing a shot.

Her 75 looked bad on paper, but that hour of golf from the 14th tee to the end was one of the more important she will ever play.

Her 70-68 weekend locked in a tie for 14th and $25,000 improved her position immeasurably.

She got a start in Hawaii because it’s an expensive week on a course not widely loved on Tour and it’s almost as far from Florida as it is from Melbourne. Enough players skipped the week and she found out five days before the tournament she was in. We flew there together with her mum and whilst a tie for 47th didn’t look great it was another $7000 – enough with the Australian Open booty to re-rank her into more events.

She flew straight from after Hawaii to San Francisco for the two-spot qualifier. Sandra Gal’s Australian caddie worked for her and she won the qualifier to earn her place in the field. Despite a Sunday 77 in high winds, 19th place was good and, more importantly, it earned her another $25,000.

No one had really noticed, but she was getting better every day and despite missing the next cut in Dallas and opening with 77 the following week in Arkansas, she came back with 67 to make the cut and followed it with 68. The 75 to finish was rubbish, but no matter.

Finding a base was critical as living on the road anywhere is pretty miserable and she found an apartment close to Trinity Forest – a new course in Dallas where Cameron McCormick teaches. He is Australian, earnt his reputation as the teacher of Jordan Spieth and is really good. Finally after chopping and changing teachers for all of 2015, she has someone to put her faith in.

Then came the breakthrough those who had been paying attention knew was coming. It began at storied Shady Oaks, Ben Hogan’s club in Fort Worth in a qualifying event for the US Open . There were 80 players for two spots, so it sounds like lousy odds. But in reality there were probably only four or five players with a realistic chance. Still an opening double-bogey on the easy 10th hole wasn’t a great start.

Four birdies from there gave her 69 and 73 in the afternoon was good enough to win the qualifier and stamp her ticket to the Open in early July.

She flew from Dallas to Virginia on Tuesday morning and despite only playing nine holes in practice, she began with 69 and 70 and then shot 67 on Saturday. Still, when she walked on to the range on Sunday morning, she had to see a whole line of top players including major champions Stacey Lewis, So Yeon Ryu and current US Open champion In Gee Chung.

It’s easy to be intimidated and feel you don’t belong, but she is a tough, young woman and 65 to finish on her last day as a teenager utterly changed the course of her year.

Watching the last couple of months from afar has been a thrill for her many supporters and, amazingly, having jumped more than 100 spots in the world rankings, she now has a real chance of making the Olympic team.

For an eight-year-old who came to Australia not speaking or understanding a word of English and having never played golf, it’s been a quite remarkable journey.

Golf Month
19 September 2018
On Episode 61 – the big wrap of Australians’ card chases, drama at the Evian, Karis Davidson from Japan and course design guru Mike Cocking reports ... Read more
19 September 2018
A global online questionnaire and data-gathering exercise on distance in golf has been launched by The R&A and the USGA today as part of the Distance ... Read more
19 September 2018
ALEXANDRA: Men: Stableford: J McCashney (16) 16. Read more
Golf Victoria