A Leap for Major Champions Baby Steps for the LPGA

By Associated PressNovember 21, 2006, 5:00 pm
The LPGA Tour season might best be defined by leaps and bounds, although that's more literal than figurative.
Karrie Webb hit the best shot in women's golf this year -- maybe the best shot in all of golf -- when her pitching wedge from 116 yards on the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco Championship landed a yard in front of the pin and crept into the cup, sending her into a playoff that she won.
Even more memorable was the raw emotion of Webb sprinting to caddie Mike Paterson and leaping into his arms.
'I think my heart just about jumped out of my chest, because it was aching for five minutes,' she said.
Ten weeks later, Se Ri Pak matched her in more ways than one. She won the LPGA Championship in a sudden-death playoff (over Webb), hitting a hybrid 4-iron from 201 yards that stopped 3 inches from the cup. After an uppercut, she also leapt into her caddie's arms.
'First time I jumped on the golf course,' Pak said.
How much of a leap forward the LPGA Tour made as an organization remains to be seen.
The start could not have been much worse. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens picked an unnecessary fight with the media that led to a one-day boycott in Hawaii and strained her relationship with the people who publicize a tour in dire need of publicity.
It could not have ended much better, with a novel format at the ADT Championship that paid $1 million to a rookie from Paraguay who closed the deal at Trump International.
Along the way, there was a mixed bag of successes and failures:
The first three majors were decided in a playoff, which alone is compelling stuff. What added to the sizzle was the number of players who had a chance to win those majors in the final holes, including 16-year-old Michelle Wie at the Kraft Nabisco, LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open.
Lost in Webb's magic at Rancho Mirage was coming from seven shots behind on the last day to match the largest comeback in the history of LPGA majors. And while the LPGA Championship came down to Webb and Pak, there were 10 other players separated by two shots on the back nine at Bulle Rock.
The U.S. Women's Open turned into a marathon between Annika Sorenstam and Pat Hurst, who played together the final 54 holes over two days. And while the playoff was a snoozer (Sorenstam won by four), the Swede ended a 10-year drought in the showcase event of women's golf.
Star Performance
Sorenstam's standards are so celestial that winning three times, including the U.S. Open, and finishing third on the LPGA Tour money list with nearly $2 million constitutes a bad year.
It's healthy for any sport to have a revolving door of stars, and Lorena Ochoa finally shoved aside Sorenstam. The question now is how long the 24-year-old Mexican stays there. Ochoa swept all the major awards with six victories, a 69.24 scoring average and more than $2.5 million to win the money title. The only thing missing was a major, and that could be around the corner.
Webb, meanwhile, won four times and went over $2 million for the first time in her career.
How's this for star power? Three major champions are Hall of Famers (Pak won't be inducted until next year).
The good news is that six rookies finished among the top 24 on the LPGA Tour money list, and Julieta Granada (No. 4) set a record for rookie earnings at more than $1.6 million.
But that figure was skewed by the $1 million payoff at the ADT Championship. And the rookies who had the best year were not the players getting all the attention at the start of the season.
Morgan Pressel had only one finish in the top three and failed to register a top 10 in any of the majors. Ai Miyazato had three good chances to win, but blew up in the final round each time, including the LPGA Championship. The best rookie was Seon-Hwa Lee.
Solheim Slump
They were the American faces of the future on the LPGA Tour after leading their team to victory in the Solheim Cup, but all of them -- Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim -- were an afterthought this year.
Gulbis has never won on the LPGA Tour, and keeping that streak going was hardly newsworthy.
The surprise was Creamer, who was second on the money list as a rookie and vowed to replace Sorenstam at No. 1. But she piled up far more endorsements than victories, never contended in a major and her only consolation was becoming the first LPGA player to crack $1 million without winning.
World Ranking
The LPGA Tour finally released its world ranking, and two things happened.
First, there was outrage that Wie was ranked No. 3 despite having not won on the LPGA Tour. Then, everyone yawned.
The rankings began with a minimum requirement of 15 tournaments, which explained why Wie was listed so highly. They were tweaked in the summer to make it a minimum of 35 events, which is why Wie is now No. 10.
But there was never a debate about No. 1 (Sorenstam), and the rankings have so little relevance that even the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship did not rely exclusively on them.
Drug Testing
The LPGA Tour made headlines at the end of the year by announcing it would begin drug testing in 2008.
Ultimately, this is a good move to eliminate any questions about golfers using performance-enhancing drugs, even though there has never been any evidence. The peculiar part was the rush to make an announcement, especially since the LPGA does not know what it will test for or how it will test its players. It said details would follow, which smacks of grandstanding.
Business leaders typically do research first, develop a plan, then make an announcement.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.