TALK about diving in at the deep end. With the kind of bold leap of faith that old Evel Knievel used to take when he hurtled towards a ramp plonked in front of the fountain at Caesars Palace, Louise Duncan has certainly not shied away from a challenge.

Last week, the 22-year-old made her professional debut in a stellar field at the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open in her native Ayrshire. This week, she’s teeing up in the very first match of the day with Catriona Mathew in an historic AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield. Just a quiet start to life in the paid ranks then? 

“I thought to myself, ‘let’s just go for it’,” said Duncan of a daunting plunge that just about requires a mask, wetsuit and submersible pressure gauge. “Not many people get to start their pro careers in the Scottish Open just down the road from their home, then come to a Women’s Open at Muirfield. I was thinking I may never get this opportunity again so I had to take it.”

She may have missed the cut on her professional debut at Dundonald Links, but the memories of her thrilling exploits in the AIG Women’s Open a year ago will hopefully stand her in good stead this week.

As an amateur in the Carnoustie showpiece 12 months ago, the West Kilbride youngster finished in a memorable share of 10th place. 

Of course, amateur campaigners performing rousing feats in pro events has been happening for years, especially at links venues.

Teeing-up with modest expectations while looking to enjoy the occasion, however, is a whole different ball game to playing for you livelihood when pounds, dollars or euros accompany every shot. And there’s a fair whack of money to think about this week. The R&A and AIG announced yesterday that the prize fund of the championship will rocket by $1.5 million to a whopping $7.3 million.

Duncan is not being distracted by the bounty on offer, though, and she’s still getting used to her new status as a professional golfer. “I haven’t had a pay cheque yet and it still hasn’t suck in that I can earn some decent money if I play well,” admitted Duncan. “I’m still in the amateur way of thinking that I won’t be making any money from playing. I’ve never thought about money before and I’m trying not to think about it this week either.

“Last year, I went out with no expectations and enjoyed it. We had a good laugh. I’m going to try that this week. That’s the key to me playing good golf.”

Due to her amateur status a year ago, Duncan missed out on a prize worth around £80,000 for her top-10 placing. She wouldn’t mind shoving that into her bank account this week and the former Women’s Amateur champion is quietly confident that she can put on another sturdy showing.

“I’ve been going through random thoughts this season thinking, ‘how did that even happen?’,” she reflected. “That week at Carnoustie was wild but it’s possible to do it again. The course set-up is nice, it will be windy and I’m used to that being from Scotland. I have loads of great memories from last year. Hopefully I can put them to good use.”

Duncan’s amateur dramatics in 2021 gained her widespread acclaim and she revelled in the publicity. TV, radio, newspapers? You name it, Duncan was on it or in it.

“People have got to know who I am a bit more over the last year and it’s been quite inspiring,” she said of her new-found fame. The fortunes may yet come.

As for the fortunes of women’s golf in general? Well, things are certainly heading in the right direction. When Muirfield’s original vote on admitting female members in 2016 faltered, the R&A took a firm stance and said the venue wouldn’t be considered as a championship host until that prickly situation was resolved. A year later, it was.  “I think 2016 was an important time for this sport and for the R&A,” admitted the chief executive, Martin Slumbers. “We had been working very hard on a strategy for the R&A that had inclusivity very much a part of it. When you think back over that six-year period, women's golf has really exploded. And it's got a long way to go yet.”

This week is another major moment on that journey.