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Reluctant champion Claire ready for title defence
Claire Smith admits she will be out of her comfort zone when she defends her national title next week.
The Ilkley member was a surprise winner of the English Ladies Mid-Amateur Championship at Colling- tree Park last year.
She went largely under the radar at the Northamptonshire venue before seeing off a top-class field but the spotlight will be on her as reigning champion at Wetherby when the competition gets underway today.
The 25-year-old admitted: “I’m pretty terrified!
“I don’t really like having a lot of attention on me. I prefer being the underdog than defending champion.”
That said, Smith will head to a course where she has never played before with confidence, having won a tournament whose illustrious previous winners include Laura Davies and Curtis Cup golfer Naomi Edwards.
Having first studied at Georgia State University as part of a golf scholarship – where she developed her game on the competitive US College circuit – Smith has spent much of this year completing a degree in physiotherapy at Northumbria University.
But she is back in competitive action and performed well for Yorkshire in the Northern Counties Match Week at Ganton earlier this month, losing only one game as the team finished runners-up to Lancashire.
The former Skipton High School pupil admits that no one was more surprised by her triumph at Collingtree than herself.
The Silsden and Ilkley member – who missed out in qualifying for the Ladies British Amateur Champion- ship at Carnoustie this week, carding rounds of 82 and 80 – had won several Bradford and Harrogate district titles but it was by far the biggest triumph of her career.
“It was just fantastic,” said the 25-year-old, who set a course record 69 at Ilkley back in 2009.
“I’d never won anything like that before and wasn’t expecting it.”
She had travelled down with her mum Jackie for the practice day on the Wednesday but both had made alternative plans for the weekend. Smith remembered: “My mum caddied for me for the first few days but we’d assumed I wouldn’t get as far as I did.
“She’d arranged to play golf on the Saturday and I was supposed to be playing in a competition in Lancashire!
“Thankfully the organiser of that was at the Mid-Amateur, so she didn’t mind.”
Throw in a joke £500 bet between them that she wasn’t going to win and it becomes apparent how much Smith didn’t rate her chances.
Having played seven rounds in four days, the Yorkshire player met Jessica Bradley in what was to prove the most nail-biting of finals.
With her father Tom (Starkie, who is Silsden Golf Club secretary) now carrying her bag and mum Jackie up at the crack of dawn to travel back down the motorway to support her, Smith got off to a great start with an eagle at the third.
But her opponent fought back as the lead exchanged hands and there was little between the two.
It went down to the last hole, with Smith standing on the 18th one up. Much of the final is now a blur but she admits the memory of playing that last par five is still vivid.
With the nerves kicking in, Smith carved her tee shot into the trees on the right but the fact that it was a par five was in her favour.
A green surrounded by water meant the second shot was always going to be a lay-up and Smith was able to chip out and put herself in position for the all-important approach.
Smith said: “I only had a wedge into the green but my heart was pounding. It was a MacKenzie green (two tier) surrounded by water and a bunker. I just wanted to get it on the putting surface.”
She managed it and almost sank her first putt for birdie but a par was enough to halve the hole and claim victory.
Her success catapulted her up the English Order of Merit where she finished an impressive 18th place.
The plus one handicapper was the youngest player back in 2004 to win the Bradford & District Ladies title before going on to claim a hat-trick of crowns.
And she will aim for a fourth title next month when this year’s event takes place from July 25-27 at Shipley.
“I’ve not played in that for a few years so it will be nice to go back,” said Smith.
The English Women’s Open Amateur Stroke Play Champion-ship at Little Aston from August 7-9 is also on her playing schedule.
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