September 4. Noon. Thirty-plus degrees in the shade. San Pedro de Alcántara promenade (Marbella). Roasting. And there she is, in all normality. Receiving a tribute from local authorities in recognition of her golfing career. Azahara Muñoz, hardened in the toughest competition, is used to putting up with unbearable heat but... something has happened. Her voice breaks, and tears run down her cheeks. What’s wrong?
he customarily impassive and undaunted Azahara is about to crack up when, during her speech of appreciation, she refers to the unconditional support she has always, since starting in the game as a young girl, received from her parents.
She is spending a few days on holiday with her family in her home town of Marbella, but that doesn’t mean she has stopped practising. Not at all. We ask for an appointment to take photos and we have to insist repeatedly and urgently in order to, finally, convince her to grant us a short amount of time the next day. The reason for her almost diehard resistance? She doesn’t want to change her tough practice sessions, even for a few minutes.
We meet at Valderrama, the flagship of Spanish golf, on greens where the world’s top players have fought boldly to win the Ryder Cup, the American Express World Golf Championship, the Volvo Masters…
There she is, Spain’s leading woman golfer, hitting balls on the same driving range where, previously, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Sergio García, José María Olazábal, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo have also practised.
- How has your life changed since your professional debut in the Madrid Ladies Masters in October 2009?
- Well, it’s changed a lot. Winning that tournament opened a lot of doors for me. To start with, I had a tour where I could play the following year, so I competed in the US LPGA (qualifying) school a lot more relaxed. It also gave me a lot of confidence. I realised that I could also win at a professional level. I had been playing really well all summer. I had won the British and other events, but you never know how things are going to be when you turn pro.
- What happened last season when you broke your ever-improving run since 2010 on the LPGA Tour. You went from nine top-10 finishes in 2012 to just three in 2013, your average score per round from 70.8 to 71.5 and your winnings were reduced by almost one-third.
- I went nearly 10 months without seeing my coach. That caused me a lot of harm. The ball was becoming bigger and I lost confidence. But you are also comparing my best year with the following year, which in the end was as good as the previous ones. In 2012, it was very good for winnings because I won a major tournament, but last year was almost as good in prizemoney as the other years. I also won a tournament in Europe and closed out the year with a second position in Taiwan, where I was close to winning. The first few months were bad but after the Solheim (Cup) everything was great.
- This year it seems as though things have returned to normal and we are once again seeing the best Azahara: two second places, two fourths in your most recent appearances, eight top-10… (after this interview, she won the Ladies French Open)
- It’s true that this year has been incredible. I’m playing like never before. Hitting the ball really well and, above all else, I feel very comfortable out on the course, confident and enjoying it a lot. I’m very pleased with the year… And I’m really keen to finish it well.
- Seventh in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, 11th in the British Open, fourth in the LPGA Championship, and all this season… Do you thinks it’s becoming more and more feasible to win a major?
Well I do think so. My game is becoming more complete. I’m also trying to improve all the time. The things that aren’t going well, or I see I’m failing at, I work on them with Marcelo. All these tournaments when I’ve been close to winning, but it hasn’t ended up that way, have enabled me to learn. It’s not easy to be up there (Grand Slam success), but I hope to achieve it one day. It would be a dream come true.
- Three wins so far (Madrid 2009, French Open 2013 and the Base Match Play Championship in 2012). How many others just barely escaped your clutches?
- Well, I think I’ve had seven second place finishes on the LPGA Tour up to now. Perhaps in two of those I didn’t have winning options, but in the others yes. And also in some other third and fourth place finishes. But, as I said before, before anything else you are learning. Each time I feel better in these situations and I love being there. I enjoy it. So hopefully another win will come soon.
- Looking at the world ranking, it can be seen that the Asian players are not dominating the top positions as they did until recently (three against three Americans, two Europeans, one Australian and one New Zealander in the top-10). Why do you think this is?
- I don’t really know why. I think we’ve learned that we have to work as hard as them. Talent counts, but also hard work. So all of us are practising more and trying to overcome our weaknesses. At least I am!
- Beatriz Recari, Carlota Ciganda, Belén Mozo… how do you see the progress of your compatriots on the LPGA Tour?
- Beatriz has won various times and Carlota and Belén I believe will explode onto the scene soon. As soon as they have a good tournament, and gain confidence, things will become easier. They are very good and are capable of winning.
- The sponsorship crisis has affected the LET (Ladies European Tour). What do you think the future holds for the Tour?
- I don’t really know. It’s a shame. I play whenever I can. But what happens is that we have so many tournaments now on the LPGA that it’s super complicated. I hope things will improve because I don’t like watching them continue to lose tournaments.
- You completed a psychology degree. Has this knowledge helped you in any way when competing?
- Everyone asks me the same question. Well, no. I didn’t study sports psychology. You have to do a masters for that. I focused my studies on development psychology. I studied development from baby to adolescent, the illnesses that there are and other things.
- With so much time spent outside Spain, what do you miss most about your country?
- A lot of things... but above all else my family. I’m a very family-orientated person and it hurts me to be so far away from them. But we see each other as often as we can, and with Skype and messages it’s much better.
- What are the most vivid memories of your first golf steps at San Pedro Golf and Guadalmina?
- I remember a lot about how much of a good time we had. We were a large group of children and after the classes we went of to play whatever we could. I think that’s why I took to it right from the start. On the weekends, into the night we played football, practised approach shots, putting... It was a great group. I was very fortunate with that. And then we went off to all the tournaments in a large bus. We had a great time!