Mike Simon and his daughter Ashleigh were driving back from Maccauvlei Golf Course one Sunday evening when the father voiced a concern he had carried with him ever since his child began to show such promise at golf.
“There are times I worry that the pressure is too much for you,” he said. Ashleigh had just lost a junior tournament on the final hole, and both father and daughter felt drained by the experience.
“But Dad,” said Ashleigh, “you don’t know how I love that pressure”.
Since that day there have been countless times when Simon has proven herself to be the girl for the big moment.
But 2006 will most likely stand out as the year in which she elevated herself to a new level of excellence, confirming once again that she is on track to becoming perhaps the greatest female golfer this country has ever produced.
This year she claimed the Sanlam South African Amateur double – Match Play and Stroke Play titles – for the second time in her career.
That earned her a place in the Women’s British Open, where she failed to make the halfway cut but gained valuable experience in her first major. She also teed it up in the Scandinavian TPC, but missed the cut again.
But it’s all part of the process of shaping the complete package required to make Simon an international force when she decides to turn professional.
“I’ll probably wait until I’m 18 before I turn pro,” says the 17-year-old. “A lot of success came quite quickly in my career. Now it’s a waiting game. I have a big year ahead of me this year. I have a lot of overseas invites and I want to do well there.”
Simon has long dominated the local women’s golf, winning virtually every amateur tournament on offer.
She’s also been extremely competitive on the Nedbank Women’s Golf Tour and shattered several South African golf records with her historic one-stroke victory in the Acer Women’s South African Open two years ago.
With a superb final round of nine-under par 63 on her home course at the Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club, Simon – then only 14 – became the first amateur to win the Women’s SA Open, the youngest player to win the title and the first amateur to win a women’s professional tournament in South Africa.
This victory came shortly after she entered the record books by becoming the first woman to play in a men’s professional tournament on the local Sunshine Tour in the Tour Championship at Leopard Creek.
It also followed her triumph in becoming the youngest winner of the South African Women’s Amateur Stroke Play and Match Play titles that year.
And of course, for the past two years she has partnered Laurette Maritz in the South African team in the Women’s World Cup of Golf.
So it’s up to Simon to create her own challenges in the game as she prepares for the professional ranks.
“I think golfers like Matthew Kent and Tanica van As went through the same thing when they dominated the amateur circuit. But once you get to the top, there is only one place to go and that’s down.
“I still felt a lot of pressure going into the SA Amateur. It was the 100th year of the event and everybody was expecting me to do well. But I have to learn how to take it to the next level.”
Such success often has jealousy as its caddie, and Simon has had to face her fair share of critics.
Playing alongside the men at Leopard Creek caused an uproar, and her place in the Women’s World Cup of Golf hasn’t gone down well with some disgruntled professionals.
“I think I’ve had to grow up pretty quickly,” says Simon. ”But because golf has always been my passion I have just tried to enjoy everything. I think my playing in the Tour Championship on the men’s tour took ladies golf to another level in this country.
My aim was never to compete with the men there, but just to promote ladies amateur golf, which I think I did. I had a lot of kids coming up to me after that who were interested in what I was doing. There’s always going to be good and bad in everything, but we get through that.”
Simon has an incredibly realistic approach to the game at her age and has set herself modest targets to begin with.
“Stuff like being world number one one day has never entered my head. I just want to have a decent career and maybe win a major. People always want to compare me to a Michelle Wie, but I’m not her.
“She’s awesome and there’s nothing more you can say. She probably is a better player than me. But hopefully one day I’ll be able to get out there and compete with her.”