THE ANZ RACV Ladies Masters at Royal Pines Resort had it all – a new world number one in Yani Tseng, a couple of former number ones, colourful characters, golfers from almost every golf playing nation on the planet and plenty of eagles and birdies.
It even had Europe’s number one – little-known South African Lee-Anne Pace, who snuck under the radar and finished in a tie for fifth place at 17-under par.
Last year Pace and former world number one Laura Davies went head-to-head on the Ladies European Tour each winning five times, but it was Pace who captured the Henderson Money List (Order of Merit).
That’s where the similarities end.
For a start, Davies has never had a golf lesson; Pace has two coaches – one in South Africa and one in Europe.
Davies drives an expensive car; Pace doesn’t own a car.
Davies hits the ball into the next postcode; Pace doesn’t.
Davies has 79 professional career titles; Pace has five.
Davies has banked millions of dollars; Pace is yet to pass the $1m mark.
“The battle between Laura and I for the Order of Merit title was quite intense and went down to the last tournament,” Pace told Inside Golf.
“Winning my first tournament in Europe was mind-blowing, but winning the Order of Merit was very special because it was a blessing for women’s golf in South African.”
As long as we can remember the men’s game in South Africa has been healthy.
Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Tim Clark, Louis Oosthuizen are all household names.
Currently the Rainbow Nation has five men in the top-25 on the world rankings – Ernie Els (11), Retief Goosen (16), Louis Oosthuizen (19), Tim Clark (22) and Charl Schwartzel (24).
But the women’s game is another story.
You have to go back to the 1970s and ’80s to find a successful South African female golfer.
Sally Little was a formidable champion winning 15 times on the US LPGA Tour including two majors – the du Maurier Classic and the US LPGA Championship.
And she twice finished runner-up in the US Women’s Open and was edged in second place at the 1988 British Open by Aussie Corinne Dibnah.
Pace isn’t the only flag-bearer for women’s golf in South Africa.
She has the support of Ashleigh Simon, a talented 21-year-old, who finished in a tie for 15th at the Ladies Masters.
“What South Africa needs,” says Pace, “is a few women’s professional tournaments.
“At the moment they are trying to get some tournaments going, but it’s hard with the way the economy is because the Rand is weak compared to the Euro,” Pace said.
“Hopefully we can get some LET tournaments in South Africa like the Australian Women’s Open and the Ladies Masters.
“But it all comes down to finding sponsors, which is hard.
“They can probably find sponsors for one tournament, but they need two or three tournaments to attract the European girls to come and play,” said Pace, who is a member of Mossel Bay Golf Club where Open champion Louis Oosthuizen plays his golf.
Pace and Osthuizen are friends and often share a round at the wind-swept Mossel Bay course.
“Louis hits the ball a mile,” Pace said.
“He can drive seven of the par-4s at Mossel Bay so it’s hard for me to beat him because I play off the men’s tees.
“We are trying to get a charity event going where we will take each other on and the money will go towards a charity.
“The people really want to see us play together.”
When Pace topped the LET money list last year the first to send congratulatory messages were Ernie Els and Gary Player.
“It was amazing when Ernie contacted me because he’s my all-time idol in golf,” Pace said.
“To hear those nice words of congratulation from him brought tears to my eyes.
“It’s nice to know he’s watching and knows what’s going on in women’s golf.
Gary Player said he wished I was his daughter which is quite funny. I think he would have his hands full if I was his daughter,” laughed Pace.
“He is a great man and a great ambassador for South African golf.
“He’s so nice and treats everybody the same whether it’s a caddie or the president of the golf club. We can learn a lot from him.
It was nice to be acknowledged by those great players.”
Surprisingly, Pace, 30, didn’t pick up a golf club until the age of 18.
She was a top hockey player and on the cusp of being picked to play for her country.
But she quickly became hooked on golf when her father put a golf club in her hand.
“I probably would have played hockey for South Africa if I had kept going because I was right at the peak of my career.
“It was a hard decision to give up hockey for golf because all my friends were playing hockey and all of a sudden I was not in the social-circle anymore,” said Pace, who also had ambitions of being a doctor.
“But looking back at it now, it seems irrelevant.”