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Rookie of the year

Golfer Carlota Ciganda is set to finish top of Europe in her first pro season

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Carlota Ciganda in action at the 2011 Omega Dubai Ladies Masters. Getty Images

At seven years old — as at eight, nine, 14, 15, 17 and 22, her present age — Carlota Ciganda has always been the best female golfer in the world. It is an extraordinary achievement, and an especially surprising one in the universe of sport, the graveyard of so many shooting stars and broken promises.

In this difficult environment, Navarre-born Ciganda — who at a young age used to frighten her father with the strength and mastery with which she struck the ball — has followed such a relaxed, calm and patient path, it seemed as if she wasn't even advancing.

While some of her contemporaries turned professional ahead of time or made their pro debuts on the United States circuit, she followed her own laidback path. "I have always done what my body has asked of me," she explains. "When I had to, I decided to study at a university in the United States and there I could get to know people, courses, lifestyles, learn to live away from home... They were years of apprenticeship that were very necessary."

But as appropriate, it was a calculated jump. She didn't want to start on the biggest stage, the US circuit, where another Spaniard, Azahara Muñoz — eighth on this year's list of top earners with over one million dollars — is now shining, but on the first rung, the European circuit, where the quiet youngster nevertheless made her entry with a bang.

You can lead a more normal, more family-oriented life playing in Europe"

With her first year as a professional almost over — there is just one tournament in Dubai to go — Ciganda is firmly the number one on the circuit with two wins in her pocket, in the Netherlands and China. Her nearest rival, Germany's Caroline Masson is 30,000 euros back. Only the great Laura Davies before her has achieved the feat of finishing top in her rookie year — back in 1985.

"You can lead a more normal, more family-oriented life playing in Europe. I am at home with my parents; I train on the course with Rogelio Etxeberria, as I have my whole life; I play padel tennis with my family; I am with my lifelong friends; and I don't get stressed out. Coming first or last in a tournament doesn't change my life," she says.

It wasn't only her sporting achievements — Spanish champion in all categories, winner of the British amateur championship — that earned Ciganda her first newspaper headlines several years ago. It was also the fact that she is the niece of former Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna soccer player Cuco Ziganda, who became her coach and helped her grow as a player. "His advice has always stood me in me in good stead — that of a person who has been at the top level of sport and knows its good and bad sides."

It seems Ciganda has only been guided by people for whom patience is the most important virtue prior to moving on in life. People such as Etxeberria — now in his seventies and who is described as rustic, in the best sense of the world, by those who love him — who started out decades ago as a caddie in San Sebastián before ending up as a teacher in Pamplona. Or people like her farmer father who responded to the closure of the Danone plant in the valley by setting up a big farm with his family and finished up making the best cuajadas (curdled milk desserts) around.

Of her fellow golfers, she maintains the most contact with José María Olazábal, who lives nearby. "I have played with him and sometimes go up to train with him at Hondarribia [in the Basque Country]. We talk a lot and of course I admire him, as I also admire Sergio García."

Perhaps it is all these solid roots that have allowed her to remain deaf to her friend Azahara's efforts to get her to play in the States. "There are better players there, a much higher level and also much more money," Ciganda admits. "But money is the not the main thing for me. And there is time. I will go, I will end up in the United States, but not yet."