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Weetabix Women's British Open 2004

Karen Stupples set for title defence

The world's finest women golfers have assembled at Royal Birkdale GC for the £1.05million Weetabix Women's British Open, this season's final major championship, which starts on Thursday.

Headlining the field is the defending champion Karen Stupples from England . The 32-year-old recorded one of the most impressive final round starts in the history of women's professional golf last year at Sunningdale GC, in Berkshire .

Starting the day a shot behind, the Dover born Stupples opened with an eagle at the first hole, followed by an albatross at the par-five second, to eventually cruise to a five shot victory over Australian Rachel Hetherington.

This week, defending that title will be a tough test, with a fierce field of 150 players in attendance.

World number one Annika Sörenstam, from Sweden , who took the first two major championships of the year by storm, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the McDonald's LPGA Championship presented by Coca-Cola, is in the field and looking for her tenth major championship and her third of the season.

Despite missing out on the Grand Slam after 23-year-old Birdie Kim claimed the US Women's Open, Sorenstam is trying to become the first player to win three majors in a year since Pat Bradley won the Nabisco Dinah Shore, LPGA Championship and du Maurier Classic in 1986.

Sorenstam has won nine majors in her career so far, and completed the career grand slam in 2003, but has never won three in a single season.

England 's Laura Davies is also in the field and only needs one more major championship victory to see her become the first British women to enter the LPGA Hall of Fame. She currently owns four major championship titles, but she claimed her only British Open title when it was contested at Royal Birkdale in 1986.

Sweden 's Sophie Gustafson, who won the Championship when it was last contested at Birkdale in 2000, is also in the field and provides another strong challenge to Stupples.

There are also host of youngsters in the field capable of shooting low scores at any time including last week's champion, 18-year-old American Paula Creamer, who won the Evian Masters, and the infamous 15-year-old Hawaiian amateur Michelle Wie, who was invited to the tournament under a sponsor's exemption.

Stupples, whose only other international victory came at the 2004 Welch's/Fry's Championship, is looking forward to the challenge of links golf once again, in front of the home fans in England, despite a slight dip in form recently.

"I have had a different year this year and I think I put down to my own expectations as much as anything else," she admitted.

"You know, this year, I found it different and I expect so much from my game now, and I know how I can play and I know what my potential is.  Like all golfers, they want to do it all the time and when it doesn't happen, I can get a bit impatient with it.  So that kind of hurt me a bit this year."

As an amateur, Stupples competed in the annual Birkdale Scratch Trophy and she also played the championship when it was last contested at Royal Birkdale, when Sweden 's Sophie Gustafson claimed the title, in 2000: "I played here in 2000, so I'm used to coming to Birkdale and playing," she said. 

"Totally different kind of golf course, but I think it will require a similar discipline in playing, how I played Sunningdale and how I'm going to have to play around here, as well," she added.

"It's very nice to come and play those again, having spent, you know, so much time in the States with just flying it all the way to the flag and watching it stop.  It's really quite nice having to plot your way around the golf course in a completely different way."

Stupples said she had learnt a lot about course management since her amateur days: "Looking at how I'm playing it now and how I used to play it, I was a little bit more driver-happy than I am these days.  I used to hit drivers everywhere and it used to get me in an awful lot of trouble," she said.

"You really have to keep short of the bunkers and put yourself in good positions here."

Davies, who is playing for her 67 th career victory and first of the season, said: "I love the golf course, it's one of my favourite courses in the country, and obviously the tradition has gone on -- but the men, I've seen it many times on the telly and I just love coming here."

Despite 16 months having passed since her last victory, at the AAMI Women's Australian Open in March 2004, Davies insisted it was business as usual with her golf game: "It's strange, really, because I've been playing well enough to win somewhere and I still haven't won one.  So it's frustrating, although I'm playing good golf.

"Last week was another occasion I was right up there and probably would never have won it, but was very disappointed to drop back, and again played really good and I actually played okay on Sunday as well.  So it's right there and I'm hitting it well. 

"I'm 20th on the Money List, which is not good, obviously, but it's a little bit better than this time last year.  So hopefully I can have a really good week this week and have a chance Sunday morning, because that's what it's all about.  I've got no negative thoughts.  Putting, chipping, driving, everything feels good."


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