KL-born Lim finally makes her mark against the best


BY LIM TEIK HUAT

WHILE the young talents were battling it out for glory in the 10th Sukma (Malaysian Games) in Seremban last weekend, Malaysia's only professional woman golfer Lim Siew Ai was creating her own piece of history halfway across the globe. 

Siew Ai produced a superb final round of six-under 66 to tie for second place in the Kellogg Keebler Classic at the Stonebridge Country Club in Ilinois. 

She fired home three birdies on each nine to finish eleven-under for the tournament, sharing second place with world number one Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and South Korea’s Jeong Jang, and five strokes behind runaway winner Karrie Webb. 

Siew Ai had kept pace with the leaders with 69 and 70 in the respective two earlier rounds and she did not falter on the final day to achieve a best ever career finish since she joined the LPGA Tour three years ago. 

Siew Ai, who is sponsored by Saujana Golf and Country Club, is the second women golfer from South-east Asia to make an impact on the world golfing scene after Jennifer Rosales of Philippines. Jennifer, the 1995 Chiangmai SEA Games individual gold medallist, won her first LPGA title in the Chick-Fil-A Championship last month. 

It was a significant achievement in Malaysian sporting history considering the world class field in the tournament. 

Siew Ai earned US$83,730 (RM318,174) for her efforts and this is the biggest prize money ever earned by a Malaysian athlete at any level. 

As a comparison, an Olympic gold medallist will receive RM160,000 under the National Sports Council (NSC)'s incentive scheme. A silver medal in the Olympic Games is worth RM80,000. 

For the bubbly 30-year-old, who is also a black belt holder in taekwondo, it was certainly the highest point of her golfing career since she first went to seek her fortunes in United States back in 1997. 

But it was something that did not come out of the blue. 

“I have been waiting to achieve something big this year. Earlier in the year, I set a target of a top ten finish in a top tournament and to make more than US$100,000 in income by the end of the year. 

“Now, I have already reached my goals,” said Siew Ai in a telephone interview from Wilmington, Delaware, where she is taking part in the McDonald's LPGA Championship. 

However, the bubbly golfer said she is not planning to rest on her laurels. 

“It means a lot to achieve what you set out to do. But the season is not even through the halfway stage and there are many tournaments to look forward to. I want to continue playing well and hope to get more good results,” she added. 

Siew Ai attributed her best ever career finish in the Kellogg Keebler Classic to good putting. 

“I just tried to play consistently. Fairways and greens were really the main focus ... getting putts where they belong and making a really good stroke at it. My putter was working really well. I was reading the greens very well and the trust level that I had on the final day was just phenomenal. 

“On the short game, my wedge was working and I missed the greens only a few times. I think that was quite important for me “ she added. 

Siew Ai revealed she actually did not want to look at the leader-board until the 15th hole on Sunday. 

“To be very honest, I have not really been in this position a whole lot, so it was a little new for me. And even when I did get up on that leader board, it was like, 'Oh, all right.' So it's a phenomena for me, but hopefully it won't be the last.” 

Siew Ai’s previous best finish was a tie for 16th in the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill. 

She has now vaulted to 34th on the LPGA money list with winnings of US$125,464 so far this year. 

A handsome sum for putting in a few hours of work on the greens but being the professional golfer, there is the uncertainties that come with it as well. 

“You'll never know when my next paycheque will come. So there is no reason for me to spend all my winnings. I plan to save it up for rainy days,” said Siew Ai. 

Siew Ai has had a string of firsts under her belt since she first took hold of a golf club at the age of six. 

Two years later, she became the youngest Malaysian to play in the Malaysian Junior Championship. 

Siew Ai won the Thailand Women's Amateur Championship in 1992, the first victory abroad by a Malaysian lady golfer. 

She was also part of the Malaysian gold medal winning team in 1993 SEA Games in Singapore, together with Lim Ai Lian and Irene Yeoh. 

Two years later, she graduated from University of South Carolina with a degree in psychology, the same year that she captured All-American collegiate honours in golf. 

That was the turning point for Siew Ai, who then decided that golf was her future calling. 

Her parents were also avid golfers and provided much support for her. 

“I was already in the national team by 14 and when you are good at something, you enjoy doing it, until today. But it was not easy on the US Tour in the beginning.” 

She certainly did not have it easy in the early days. She had to scrape by on the Futures Tour, a year after turning pro. 

“I was either living in my van, which also doubles up as my bedroom, or staying with friends at various tournaments. You could say I'm homeless in US,” she once said. 

Then, there were the times when she had to play without a full card. 

“Basically, I have to qualify for tournaments,” she added. 

However, Siew Ai earned exempt status for this year after she was tied for 22nd in the LPGA Tour Final Qualifying tournament last October. 

The turn-around in her golf fortunes came as a result of working on her swing and short game with long-time coach Hank Johnson. 

The world is now in her hands and Siew Ai certainly will be out to add more feathers to her cap. 

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