Sports Outside the Beltway

2007 LPGA Season begins today

The Ladies pro golf tour kicks off in Hawaii.

KAHUKU, Oahu, Hawaii – For the third straight year, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) begins its official season in the beautiful state of Hawaii. Defending champion Joo Mi Kim is among 138 golfers who will compete from Feb. 15-17 on the Palmer Course at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay.

Kim became a Rolex First-Time Winner at this event last year, after outlasting Lorena Ochoa (after one hole) and Soo Young Moon with two birdies in a two-hole, sudden-death playoff. Kim joins a deep field that includes nine of the top-10 players from the 2006 season-ending LPGA Official Money List.

Leading that charge is Ochoa, who was the 2006 Rolex Player of the Year. The 25-year-old enters her fifth year on tour after coming off the strongest season of her career. Ochoa won six tournaments to claim her first Rolex Player of the Year title, the Vare Trophy and the ADT Official Money List title. With $2,592,872 in season earnings, Ochoa was the second player in LPGA Tour history to surpass the $2 million mark in season earnings. She added six runner-up finishes and ended last season with 20 top-10 finishes in 25 starts.

Ochoa is not the only player looking to continue where she left off. LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame member Karrie Webb re-emerged as a top player on tour in 2006. The Australian’s back-to-back victories at the Australian Women’s Open (Feb. 1-4) and ANZ Ladies Masters (Feb. 8-11) proved she is back to her winning ways in 2007. Webb won five LPGA tournaments, including her unforgettable second win at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she holed a pitching wedge from 116 yards to eagle and force a playoff, which she later won. Webb also became the third player in LPGA history to earn more than $2 million in one season (joining Annika Sorenstam and Ochoa). Webb has accumulated more than $12 million career earnings and has 35 career LPGA Tour wins, which includes seven major championship victories.

Twenty-year-old Julieta Granada is also a player to beat this week. Granada not only became the first player in women’s professional golf to win a $1 million first-place paycheck at the season-ending ADT Championship in November, she also is coming off a victory at the Women’s World Cup of Golf. An unofficial event on the LPGA Tour schedule, she teamed with Celeste Troche to represent Paraguay and the team won by seven strokes over Team USA. Granada set an LPGA Tour record in 2006 for the most money earned by a rookie ($1,633,586), which broke Paula Creamer’s 2005 mark of $1,531,780.

Other players who will challenge for the title this week include 2006 tournament winners Cristie Kerr, Mi Hyun Kim, Juli Inkster, Jeong Jang, Hee-Won Han, Seon Hwa Lee, Se Ri Pak, Brittany Lincicome, Sherri Steinhauer and Meena Lee.

Creamer is eager for her third-career victory while LPGA Tour stars Natalie Gulbis, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lang and Ai Miyazato look for their first win on the LPGA Tour.

The tournament has an excellent field despite the abscence of both Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam. Michelle is out with a wrist injury, Annika is not starting her LPGA season till the tour season till March in Mexico. The Honolulu Advertiser is deluding itself when it says Annika is obligated to play the SBS in 2008. The Swedish golf superstar doesn’t think LPGA golf rules apply to her.

Another player in the field is Kimberly Kim, the defending US Amateur Champion. The 15-year-old some call K2, got a sponsor’s exemption into this week’s field.

What can we expect for the LPGA season? Ron Sirak of Golf World magazine poses some questions.

* Was Lorena Ochoa’s six-win season a breakthrough year or a career year she won’t repeat again?

* Did we see the beginning of the end of Sorenstam as No. 1 in the world last year, or will she bounce back from the distractions of outside business affairs?

* Is Karrie Webb really back, and does she have the desire to be No. 1 in women’s golf once again?

* Who is the best of the Americans, Paula Creamer or Cristie Kerr?

* Is Julieta Granada, No. 4 on the money list last year after winning $1 million at the ADT Championship, the real deal?

* Will Ai Miyazato, a disappointment as a highly touted rookie, get her first LPGA victory this year to go with 14 wins in Japan.

* Which is the real Se Ri Pak, the one who captured the 2006 McDonald’s LPGA Championship or the one who missed five cuts last year?

* Will Natalie Gulbis end her 0-for-135 streak in LPGA events?

* Will Morgan Pressel bounce back from a disappointing rookie year?

* Speaking of rookies, who will be the best this year?

* And will Michelle Wie, who turns 18 on Oct. 11, become the youngest winner in the history of the LPGA by grabbing a title this year?

Here are my answers.

1- Ochoa is for real. Her 69.236 stroke average for 2006 was the second best in LPGA history. 2007 could be a letdown, only because it is tough to win 6 tournaments on this tour with as much competition as there is.

2- Sorenstam will win more often than in 2006 but nothing like her 10-win season of 2005. As to outside influences, heck almost everyone on the men’s or ladies tour has those. It is called a spouse and for some children aka a family.

So save the excuses Ron.

3- Webb is back without question.

4- I have to give it to Kerr based on win records theirs. The Pink Panther trails 8 to 2. Paula had an off 2006, but I expect both these players to win in 2007.

5- Julieta Granada is a good player, but her ADT win bloated her position on the money list. She played well last year, but no one including Sirak put this golfer as one of the top 10 players on tour.

If Granada is top #10, and Webb, Ochoa and Sorenstam are automatics, how do you filter down to six players from the list of Kerr, Creamer, Se Ri Pak, Wie, Jeong Jang, Hee Won Han, Seon Hwa Lee, Morgan Pressel, Natalie Gulbis, Mi Hyun “Peanut” Kim, Juli Inkster, and Ai Miyazato. Sirak was more infatuated with Pressel and Miyazato for the whole of 2006 in regards to who the best rookie was. Lee, who never got much respect, beat all of them out, Granada included, for Rookie of the year. Han and Jang have been #10 money winners or three straight years. The diminutive Peanut won twice last year, beating Gulbis head to head in a playoff and facing down Ochoa and Webb in her other victory. She also has at 7 career wins, more titles than everyone above listed except Pak, Inkster, Sorenstam, Kerr, Ochoa, and Webb. Then there is Wie is top 10 according to the world rankings.

Apparently either Sirak can’t count, has forgotten what he preached for 2006 about the tour’s youth movement, or has a racist side in him for leaving out Jang, Han, Lee and the injured 2004 Vare Trophy winner Grace Park who if healthy is probably a top #5 golfer. I don’t think Sirak is racist,(He is more likely just plain dumb. Sirak once didn’t include Kim Saiki among LPGA winners born in the US. See Kim comes from that foreign country called California.) but I think there is a resentment of the growing Korean influence on the LPGA. There are 45 players from the ROK on tour this year, plus Korean companies sponsor at least three tournaments and South Korea is biggest foreign purchaser of LPGA merchandise. These women can play, the 11 wins by them last year says it all.

The golf media needs to get over it, whether it is resentment or racism. Korea’s influence on the LPGA is here to stay. In addition to the ROK players, there is the coming Korean-American influence led by Wie, K2 and others. Christina Kim, born in California, has two LPGA wins already.

If you’re wondering who my #10 are, here it is but not necessarily in order- Sorenstam, Webb, Ochoa, Pak, Kerr, Wie, Creamer, Gr. Park, Inkster and Han. That is if all players are healthy.

6- Miyazato’s rookie year was only a disappointment to her Japanese fans and the Golf media who over hyped Ai. Her play was actually quite good, despite several Sunday collapses. Miyazato will get her first tour win soon.

7- Pak has injury problems, but there is no question her confidence is back after the LPGA win. Se Ri will be back in the top five money winners this year, and I’m sticking to my New Year’s prediction of her winning the Kraft Nabisco so to complete the Grand Slam.

Se Ri, who will be inducted into the golf Hall of Fame late in 2007, gets the same lack of respect as the rest of her Korean country women. Her fall on the money list from top 3 to barely in the top 100 was barely mentioned in any golf writer’s comebacks of 2006. Webb was almost the universal #1 pick for comeback but will all due respect to Karrie, she never fell out of the top 40 money winners. Don’t get me started on someone’s choice of Nick Faldo either…

Also Se Ri’s winning utility club shot to three inches was every bit as good as Karrie’s hole out with a wedge at the Nabisco. Any golfer or honest golf writer will tell you what was the tougher club to get close to the hole.

8- Gulbis is a good player but overrated because of her calendar girl looks. She couldn’t beat Peanut in a playoff last year despite the boisterous crowds pulling for her. That tells us more about Natalie’s ability than all the media driven hype.

That said, I think Natalie will finally win an LPGA tour event in 2007 but she is not one of the top #10 players on tour. Never will be.

9- See my Miyazato comment. Morgan was also another over hyped rookie but she is a force on tour.

10- Learning from his 2006 failure to consider the Futures tour, Sirak picks Song-Hee Kim for Rookie of the Year. I’ll agree Song-Hee is the favorite but not a cinch for the title.

11- Michelle’s recent wrist injury and poor play tell me she won’t get that first win in 2007. I still believe Michelle will be a superstar. That is if she doesn’t aggravate her wrist injuries into something far worse.

The LPGA took the birthdays out of all the player profiles online and their media guidebook. Maybe the over 40 players didn’t want their birth years listed as earlier than 1968. What woman wants to admit being over 39? Cue the sarcastic laughter.

I think that wraps things up. Oh LPGA fans like wine by the way. Then why haven’t I had a drink in over four years?

Cross Posted to The Florida Masochist and Poliblog’s Deportes

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