The LPGA doesn't need a format fix like the Men's new Fedex Cup (a points race system patterned after NASCAR's Nextel Cup) to create artificial excitement. The Ladies game is in a sweet spot. While tour guiding lights like Annika Sorenstam, Julie Inkster and Karrie Webb remain vital, a groundswell of young faces and glowing personalities are swinging their way into the forefront.
And with golf's number-one attraction trimming back his tournament load (Tiger Woods and his bride are expecting their first child), the LPGA's burgeoning crop of ball blasters have a unique opportunity to wrench the spotlight away from the men. Here's a rundown of some of the lady golfers to keep an eye on in '07.
South Koreans won 10 of last season's 33 LPGA events -- that's double the '03 Seoul-train trophy total. With Q-school co-leaders Choi Hye-jeong and Kim In-Kyeong heading the '07 Korean rookie class, that number is set to soar. "It's going to be the Korean Tour pretty soon," five-time major winner Se Ri Pak joked to *The New York Times*. "Hopefully, everybody loves us," she added.
If long-hitting Korean-American phenom Michelle Wie realizes her potential and joins the victory march, then we'll be hearing plenty more "Woohoo, on-ni! [big sister]" on the links. At 6-foot-1 and with the ability to launch her tee shots over 300 yards, the Big Wiesy becomes the centre of attention wherever she comes out to play. The soon-to-be Stanford freshman's vaulting ambition and stubborn determination to one day play on the men's PGA Tour and qualify for the Masters just adds to her mystique.
Yet despite padding her wallet with $20 million in endorsements last year (almost 10 times the earnings of the LPGA money leader), the 17-year-old failed to collect a W in the eight LPGA tournaments she entered. Wie did, however, place third in both the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the US Women's Open. She also made a positive stride in her efforts to play with the men, making her first cut. Wie was tied for 17th place after two rounds on the Asian Tour's SK Telecom Open -- she would finish 35th, 12 shots behind winner Prom Meesawat.
East Meets West
Wie is the undisputed leader of the ponytail posse that receives the most fawning media and fan attention in women's golf. But close behind are: Paula Creamer (age 20), Natalie Gulbis (24) and Morgan Pressel (18, see sidebar).
While all three are in the mix competitively -- they ranked 11th, 16th and 24th respectively on the money list in 2006 -- at press time, Creamer was the only one to have recorded a win on the LPGA tour. She won two tournaments in her rookie season in '05 and was an integral part of Team USA's 15 1/2-12 1/2 thrashing of Europe at the Solheim Cup (the LPGA's equivalent of the Ryder Cup), where she posted a 3-1-1 record.
Known as the Pink Panther for her obsession with the flirty colour, Creamer is all "pinked out" on the links. She sports pink grips, a pink shaft on her driver and pink shoes with pink spikes, and she accessorizes the look with a plush Pink Panther head cover. She had fashionistas in the gallery in a tizzy last August at the Women's British Open when she walked the fairways in an all-black number complete with black knee socks and shoes.
Creamer's a tough cookie, and she handles the extra attention she garners from the crowd like a pro. It was once reported that while walking to a tee box, Creamer came face to face with two zealous fans. One held a "marry me" sign and the other a "me too" sign -- the men were the golf world's equivalent of wolf-whistling construction workers. After hitting her shot, Creamer turned to them and said, "Move to Utah and I'll marry you both."
Gulbis Has Got Major Game
Thanks to her Golf Channel reality show and her popular swimsuit calendar, Natalie Gulbis often fields comparisons to Anna Kournikova, who retired from tennis richer from modelling jobs than tournament winnings. But Nat's no circus sideshow, she's in the thick of almost every tournament she enters. Gulbis recorded seven top-10 finishes in 26 starts in 2006 and tied for third place at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Genetics were as kind to her skeletal makeup as they were to her physiognomy -- Gulbis was born with an extra vertebra, augmenting her range of motion. The spinal advantage allows her upper body to rotate more easily, which gives her swing added torque. Preternatural swinger or not, she'll need to secure a win to throw the critics off her back.
In a meritocracy, the 2006 Rolex Player of the Year and the AP Female Athlete of the Year would attract at least half as much recognition as the ladies mentioned above. Lorena Ochoa, 24, ended Annika Sorenstam's long reign as the Tour's top golfer last year thanks to six tournament wins. The Mexican star ruled the LPGA in the shot-making department, hitting the most greens in regulation and averaging a Tour-leading 4.44 birdies per round. She also led in eagles, with 15.
But there's still a double standard in play for many female athletes. Men who excel are admired, but with women, pure ability does not seem to be captivating in and of itself for most viewers. Ochoa comes across as an introvert -- a handicap only when it comes to snagging endorsement deals. You won't soon see her wardrobe selection showing up in Madison Avenue windows or her figure gracing *Maxim* Magazine. But you will see her where it really counts – playing a mean game on the greens.
Million Dollar Bebé
Ochoa has a budding nemesis in 20-year-old Paraguayan Julieta Granada who beat Ochoa by two strokes at the ADT Championship at Trump International last November to claim a cool $1 million--the richest purse in LPGA history. Granada followed that up this past January with a spectacular team effort along with countrywoman Celeste Troche. The duo led Paraguay in the country's tournament debut to a scintillating seven-stroke victory at the Women's World Cup of Golf.
Psst… Pressel: Tired of Hearing All About Michelle Wie?
Morgan Pressel, the fiery upstart who first burst onto the scene at age 12 when she became the youngest qualifier in US Women's Open history, is intent on making the world forget all about her rival, Ms. Wie. Here are her most famous Wie whacks…
On whether Wie will ever join the LPGA Tour:
"Never. OK, maybe not never, but not as long as she wants to do her 'woo-woo' thing against the men."
On Wie's giant endorsement contracts:
"She's going to make something like $10 million? For what? For winning one tournament?"
On Wie being granted an exemption for the '06 US Women's Open:
"I don't think she needs an exemption. I've been through qualifying. Everybody who doesn't make it on the money list, other amateurs, other professionals that aren't members of the Tour, they all have to go through qualifying too. I don't see why she shouldn't, or why she should be afraid, or expect an exemption."
Copyright © Mike Dojc 2007