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Teen phenom Ashleigh Simon swings as South Africa's version of Michelle Wie

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Feb. 11, 2005) - She sets up at the tee, studies the ball for a few moments and swings in a motion that looks effortless. The ball starts off low and then begins to rise, soaring far down the fairway until it hits in the middle about 250 yards away.

This isn't an LPGA pro - it's a 15-year-old girl from Africa. Her father nods approvingly.

Imagine picking a golf club up when you were three years old and finding the game just comes naturally to you. You find yourself getting better and better until you're 15 years old and you're one of the best female golfers in the world.

That's what happened with Ashleigh Simon. At the ridiculously tender age of 15, Simon is South Africa's version of Michelle Wie - the Hawaiian-born U.S. teen phenom who not only has already played on the LPGA tour, but has also had a try with the big boys on the PGA in the Sony Open last year.

Simon has also played with the opposite chromosomes. She received a special invitation to play against 74 men in a South African tour event at Leopard Creek, the top-ranked course in the country, according to Golf Digest.

Simon fared about as well as Wie - Wie missed the cut and Simon finished dead last - but, there's still plenty of time for Simon. Just ask Annika Sorenstam, a role model for both teenagers.

Competing with men isn't exactly a career goal for Simon, though she said she enjoyed the experience.

"I like playing with men in exhibitions, but not competitively," Simon said during a recent outing at Glendower Golf Club, one of South Africa's top courses. "I feel women should compete against each other and the men should do the same."

That doesn't mean she minds competing against the pros. Still an amateur, Simon won the South African Open last year, shattering some records along the way. Starting the final round eight shots off the lead, she fired a 63 on her home course of Royal Johannesburg to win by a stroke, including a six-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole.

In doing so, Simon became not only the first amateur to win the Open, but the first amateur to win anywhere on the South African women's tour. Her closing round tied the lowest score ever on the tour and made her the youngest ever Open winner - she was 14 at the time.

Simon's showing prompted South African golf writer Michael Vlismas to call her "possibly the greatest female golf talent ever to emerge from these shores."

Her win in the Open makes her considerable amateur achievements pale by comparison.

Simon won both the junior and senior stroke-play tournaments at the KwaZulu Natal championships as well as the match-play title. She also won the Telkom Classic and the Nedbank Ladies South African Masters in the amateur division, won the Bells South African Amateur and finished fourth at the Callaway Junior World Championships in Sydney, Australia.

In fact, Simon has won tournaments in Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Puerto Rico and the U.S. What does she think of the U.S.?

"It's so big," she said, shaking her head.

It may not be too long before South Africa is too small for Simon. Her goals are already big.

"I want to play the LPGA in America and hopefully one day win a major," Simon said.

Simon got a serious dose of the competition that's in store for her when she played in the Women's World Cup at Fancourt in the South African town of George on Feb. 11-13. The events marked the first time the LPGA and pros from the European tour have competed and 20 countries were represented. Simon teamed with and partner Laurette Maritz, a seasoned South African pro.

"I think we have a wonderful blend of youth and experience," South Africa World Professional Golf Association chairperson Wendy Applebaum told the South African media. "Laurette is one of our most experienced professionals and Ashley is certainly one of the brightest young talents we have."

Bookmakers weren't impressed, establishing the pair as a 200-to-1 longshot to win the tournament. However, Simon and Maritz finished 12th, ahead of the U.S. team of Meg Mallon and Beth Daniel.

Simon has a coach and a personal fitness trainer, but her father, Mike, has been her mentor for most of her life. Like any teenager, she chafes a bit when dad offers her some on-course advice, but at the end of the day - at least this day at Glendower's 19th hole - there were no complaints when she accepted the $20 bill she won from him out on the course.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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