With the start of the 2016 Ladies European Tour season at the ISPS HANDA New Zealand Women’s Open only three days away, 144 players from 32 different countries are pouring in to Christchurch from all over the world for the season-opener at Clearwater Golf Club.

World No. 1 and defending champion Lydia Ko is undoubtedly the hottest player in the field coming off a tie for third in the Coates Golf Championship in Florida at the weekend.

ko762

The young Kiwi held a share of the 54-hole lead with first-time winner Ha Na Jang at Ocala Golf Club last week. Ko hung with Jang for much of the front nine in the final round but played her way out of contention on the back nine, so the question is… will she bring her best golf to Christchurch for the fourth edition at Clearwater?

Last year, Ko broke the course record with an electrifying 11-under 61 and collected the title for the second time with a four stroke victory in front of her home galleries so she is the hot favourite.

ko2762

Fellow Kiwi Cathryn Bristow could be right up there, as she recently came off a victory at the ALPG Tour Moss Vale Golf Club Ladies Classic in Wollongong, shooting a sensational eight under par in her final round. Riding the front seat on the ALPG Order of Merit also secured her a starting birth at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open at Royal Melbourne following the New Zealand Women’s Open which is a great opportunity to build her career.

Last week was a big moment in the young career of Georgia Hall, who could become England’s next hot golfer. The 19-year-old from Bournemouth captured the Oates Victorian Open on the ALPG Tour, which was her second professional victory following success on the LET Access Series. Coaches in the know say that she has an even better swing than Ko but will she be able to better the World no.1 in her own back garden?

Denmark’s Nanna Koerstz Madsen and Norwegian Marianne Skarpnord tied for second in Victoria, finishing just a stroke behind Hall and they are also showing rich form. Madsen finished ninth on the 2015 LET Order of Merit as a rookie despite not winning a tournament which would suggest that she is on track for a win in 2016.

Madsen’s Danish rival Emily Kristine Pedersen, who captured the LET’s 2015 Rookie of the Year Award, will start her 2016 season in New Zealand and it will be interesting to see what she has in store for her second year on the LET after her maiden victory in India last year.

Former champions Dame Laura Davies from England, who won at Pegasus Golf Club in 2010 and Gwladys Nocera from France, who won the title in 2009 before it joined the LET schedule, are both in the field, as are 2015 LET tournament winners Celine Herbin, Nicole Broch Larsen, Hannah Burke and Beth Allen and European Solheim Cup team member Caroline Hedwall.

The LET’s season-opening event marks the start of the final race to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and it will be very entertaining to see who makes a push starting here.

Currently there are 30 Ladies European Tour members from 20 different countries who are inside the top 60 on the Women’s Olympic Rankings which will determine who qualifies in mid-July.

Those in the top 60 on the Olympic Ranking who are competing in New Zealand include Gwladys Nocera (France), Nicole Broch Larsen and Emily Kristine Pedersen (Denmark), Marianne Skarpnord (Norway), Dewi Claire Schreefel (Netherlands), Christine Wolf (Austria), Fabienne In-Albon (Switzerland), Chloe Leurquin (Belgium), Cathryn Bristow (New Zealand), Aditi Ashok (India) and Victoria Lovelady (Brazil).

Ashok, 17, who won the LET’s Lalla Aicha Tour School Final Qualifier in December, is one of 13 LET Rookies in the field. She is joined by Ana Menendez (Mexico), Amy Walsh (Australia), Ines Lescudier (France), Angel Yin (USA), Olivia Cowan (Germany), Natalia Escuriola Martinez (Spain), Johanna Gustavsson (Sweden), Nuria Iturrios (Spain), Gemma Dryburgh (Scotland), Emily Talley (USA), Noemi Jimenez Martin (Spain) and Justine Dreher (France), who warmed up with a fifth place finish in the Victorian Open on the ALPG Tour last week. The ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open begins on Friday, 12th February at Clearwater Golf Club.