Hackett shows nerves of steel to earn title

 

NERVES of steel Barbara Hackett displayed admirable composure in a battle of the domestic game's two big hitters to beat Lillian Behan in the final of the Lancome Irish Women's Close Championship at Tramore on Saturday.

And, with just a touch of irony, the 26-year-old Castletroy golfer afterwards paid tribute to the coaching influence of Brendan McDaid, brother of her predecessor as champion Eileen Rose Power. "I've been working really hard on my game since January with Brendan, the target being to regain my place on the Irish team. But I have even exceeded that ambition now," she said.

It was perhaps inevitable that Hackett and Behan should provide the final opposition. When some competitors earlier in the championship complained about the length of the Tramore course, Irish golf's two biggest hitters remained ominously quiet. As Hackett subsequently said, "the longer the better for me."

Hackett, who eventually conquered Behan by a 3 and 2 margin in the final, represented Ireland in 1993 and 1994 but was, dropped last season. A return to the fold appears to be on the cards now, especially given her ability to withstand a threatened fightback by former Curtis Cup star Behan, who was competing in the championship for the first time in over a decade after an unsuccessful stint as a professional.

Yet, the final itself was slightly disappointing, especially coming on the heels of two classic semifinals where Hackett edged out the six-months pregnant Laura Webb at the 19th, and Behan was required to go even further before dismissing defending champion Power at the 20th.

The opening few holes of the final between Hackett and Behan were decidedly scrappy, with both players taking it in turns to duff chip shots into drains: Hackett at the second, Behan at the fourth, at which stage the Castletroy player established a two hole advantage.

With nerves and tension easing, play settled down thereafter and an indication of the power play from the duo is that the seventh and eighth holes were halved in birdie fours. Indeed, at that eighth hole, Hackett unleashed a drive of over 240 yards, yet still found herself some 20 yards behind Behan; confirmation of the driving prowess of the pair.

Although Hackett turned two up, Behan's fightback materialised almost immediately on the homeward journey. The Curragh player reduced the deficit on the 10th, where Hackett three-putted for the only time in the match, and then levelled matters on the 11th after her opponent's approach found a greenside sandtrap.

And when Hackett played a dreadful approach to the 12th - "a shot bordering on a socket," she later confessed - it appeared as if Behan would go ahead for the first time. However, Behan, just over the back of the green in two, played a poor chip and missed the putt, while Hackett miraculously salvaged a winning par four. "That was the crucial point in the match," said Hackett.

Hackett re-established her two-hole lead at the short 15th - hitting an eight iron approach in to three feet - and the writing was on the wall when Behan's tee-shot at the 16th was pulled left into trees and she was forced to take a penalty drop. Hackett (encouraged by caddie Valerie Hassett) sensibly played for the par five which was enough to claim victory.

"I'm obviously thrilled to win. I knew I was playing really well coming in to the championship, although I was more hopeful than confident," she said.

Behan, the 1985 British Amateur champion, was like a breath of fresh air on her return to the national championship. "I was tired, mentally as much as physically, after the semi-final win over Eileen Rose. It took a lot out of me, and the lack of competition in recent years probably went against me a little bit," said Behan, who had to endure a two-and-a-half years wait before her reinstatement to the amateur ranks last July and, then, had the misfortune to sustain a back injury which prevented her return to competitive fare until this season.

"However, I really enjoyed myself - and it is great to be back among friends again. At least I know the sort of targets I can now set myself," she added.

Behan's return to the amateur ranks and Hackett's re-emergence will obviously be noted by the Irish selectors - although neither has been included in the Irish "Team" for the British Amateur Open at Hoylake on June 26th-30th. Curtis Cup reserve Power, Leinster champion Suzy Fanagan and Ulster champion Michelle McGreevy have been awarded those places.