By Brian Keogh
This is a good time to start a career on the Ladies European Tour - especially if you're Irish.
Just ask mother of two Suzanne O'Brien, the former LET professional who has turned her attention to family life and a career in coaching after playing on the the ladies professional circuit from 2001 to 2005.
When O'Brien turned professional, the 50th ranked player on the tour that year earned just over €15,000. Last season that player pocketed almost €37,000 while 11 players earned over €100,000.
LET executive director Alexandra Armas has taken the tour to new heights and the 2007 schedule will feature a minimum of 25 events offering prize money in excess of €11 million.
With Carlow's Rebecca Coakley winning more than €100,000 from her last two campaigns, tour school graduates Claire Coughlan of Cork and Beaverstown's Martina Gillen could not have timed their move into the professional ranks any better.
"With four new events in 2007 and the return of the Solheim Cup to Sweden, I am confident that 2007 will be the Tour's most exciting year to date," said Armas, who will bring the Solheim Cup to Ireland in 2011.
Coughlan and Gillen did not travel to Australia for the opening two events of the 2007 campaign, preferring instead to dip their toes into professional waters by playing four pro-am events on the Ladies African Golf Tour in February and March.
But O'Brien, who celebrates her 40th birthday this year, has no doubt that the former Curtis Cup stars have what it takes to become successful professionals and challenge for Solheim Cup honours when the event is played at Killeen Castle in Co Meath in four years' time.
"Both Martina and Claire have the games for it and Rebecca has shown she can contend for tournaments," O'Brien said. "I don't see why they can't do well. I would expect them to contend in events and win events in the short term rather than the long term.
"Rebecca was playing in final groups when I was playing on the tour two years ago and it is just about consistency and holing the putts. It is not about anything else. That is what Rebecca's strength is - she always posted good scores, never had disasters and she putts well.
"I don't see why they can't go out and win. If they start well at the beginning of the season there is nothing they can't do. There is nothing to be afraid of.
"Even the Solheim Cup is open to them because there are girls on that Solheim Cup team who were at tour school the year before me - players such as Gwladys Nocera.
"It just needs a little bit of luck and a lot of practice, dedication and confidence. I will be be surprised if they don't do well and Rebecca has such good course management, such a good mental game and such a great putting stroke that I would be surprised if she wasn't up there."
O'Brien concedes that there is a learning curve involved and points to England's Rebecca Hudson, who won over €120,000 on the tour last year after three years in the wilderness
"She had a couple of very bad seasons, which involved going back to tour school and everything. And she has been British Amateur champion twice," O'Brien explained.
"So there appears to be a three or four year learning curve before players make their mark. It might not happen this year but I don't see why it won't happen for any of the Irish girls if they keep at it."
Ireland will have an LET event his season with the Northern Ireland Ladies Open at Hilton Templepatrick Hotel and Country Club paving the way for the return of the Irish Ladies Open, after a four year absence, next season.
All three Irish players have high hopes for the season ahead with Coakley determined to build on two excellent seasons and challenge strongly for Solheim Cup honours in 2009 and 2011.
"Hopefully I can get myself in contention for a place on that team in four years' time," said Coakley, who finished 36th on the money list last year.
"I feel I am getting closer to the standard you need to play at to make something like a Solheim Cup team.
"In my rookie year, two years ago, I was 28th on the LET Order of Merit and I was hoping to finish in the top 20 last year.
"I got off to a great start by finishing third in Tenerife, which was my best finish as a pro, but I don't know it is was mental or not but I didn't push on from there."
She won't hook up with her former Irish amateur team mates Gillen and Coughlan until the tour hits European soil in early May with the Tenerife Ladies Open.
Coughlan beat Michelle Wie twice in the foursomes on her Curtis Cup debut in 2004. And she showed by finishing joint winner of last year's qualifying school that she has the talent to become the first Irishwoman to take on the cream of American professional golf in the Solheim Cup
"Beating Michelle Wie in the Curtis Cup is one of the highlights of my career so far. But I have no idea what to expect. Getting on the tour probably hasn't hit me yet," Coughlan said. "All I know is that I will be on my own. It is very individual. There is no team behind you outside the Solheim Cup."
Ladies European Tour Schedule 2007
May 3 - 6 Tenerife Ladies Open €275,000
May 10 - 13 Open De España Femenino €275,000
May 17 - 20 Deutsche Bank Ladies Swiss Open €525,000
May 23 - 26 BMW Ladies Italian Open €400,000
June 1 - 3 Northern Ireland Ladies Open, Hilton Templepatrick €200,000
June 8 - 10 KLM Ladies Open €180,000
June 15 - 17 Catalonia Ladies Masters €200,000
Jun 21 - 24 Vediorbis Open de France €340,000
July 6 - 8 Ladies English Open €165,000
July 13 - 15 Ladies Central European Open, Hungary €200,000
July 26 - 29 EVIAN MASTERS €2,274,300
Aug 2 - 5 WEETABIX WOMEN'S BRITISH OPEN The Old Course, St Andrews, €1,554,525
Aug 9 - 12 Scandinavian TPC €525,000
Aug 16 - 19 Wales Ladies Championship of Europe €518,175
Aug 24 - 26 SAS Masters €200,000
Aug 31 - Sept 2 Finnair Masters €200,000
Sept 6 - 9 Nykredit Masters €200,000
Sept 14 - 16 THE SOLHEIM CUP Halmstad Golf Club, Halmstad, Sweden
Sept 20 - 22 De Vere Ladies Scottish Open €200,000
Sept 27 - 30 Austrian Ladies Open €250,000
Oct 5 - 7 Madrid Ladies Masters €400,000
Dec 6 - 9 Dubai Ladies Masters €500,000