A Year to Remember
Sorenstam began making headlines even before the LPGA began its season with her announcement that she would become the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour at the Bank of America Colonial in May.
By the time the event took place in late May, Meg Mallon had already had a chance to shoot 59, Frances Patricia Meunier-Lebouc had won her first career major after outdueling Sorenstam at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and Candie Kung had won the first of three titles in what would become a breakout season.
Sorenstams foray into the mens professional golf realm was well-documented by media around the world, creating an unprecedented buzz around the LPGA that carried through to the seasons final two weeks ago.
Six other women also competed against the men in the professional ranks in 2003: Suzy Whaley; Michelle Wie; Jan Stephenson; Laura Davies; Se Ri Pak; and Sophie Gustafson.
By years end, Sorenstam had put together yet another stellar season that included her sixth career Rolex Player of the Year award, completion of the LPGA Career Grand Slam and entrance into the LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame. She thrust the LPGA into the national spotlight like never before and led the way in what evolved into arguably the LPGAs most publicized and successful year ever.
Sorenstam finished the season with six wins, 15 top-10 finishes, a season-best $2,029,506 in earnings, two major championship titles (McDonalds LPGA Championship Presented by AIG, Weetabix Womens British Open) and the title of LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame member.
Sorenstams win at the Weetabix Womens British Open made her just the sixth LPGA player to achieve the LPGA Career Grand Slam, and her win at the Mizuno Classic was her third straight at that event. But Sorenstam wasnt the only player to shine in 2003 and wasnt the only storyline that emerged.
An Open to Remember
Who would have thought a struggling player looking for her first top-10 finish of the season would join a third-year player coming off her first career victory and an established veteran to make the U.S. Womens Open one of the most memorable in the events 58-year history?
Thats just what Hilary Lunke, Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins did at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore., in early July. The trio finished 72 holes in a three-way knot after Stanford made a clutch birdie putt on the final hole of regulation.
One day and 18 holes later, Lunke dazzled a national television audience when she trumped yet another 18th-hole Stanford birdie putt with one of her own to become the 14th player in LPGA history to make the U.S. Womens Open her first career victory and the first player to emerge a champion through the sectional Open qualifying system. It was a U.S. Womens Open for the record books and one that will not soon be forgotten.
Koreas Pak had another impressive season, winning three times, taking home her first career Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, finishing second on the ADT Official Money List and inching to within one point of the 27 needed to qualify for the LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame. Pak now has 21 career titles heading into the 2004 season.
Mexicos Lorena Ochoa came out of the gates in her rookie year by making 16 consecutive cuts and leaving little doubt as to who would take home the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award.
She went on to record eight top-10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up finishes, missed just one cut all season and ran away with the top rookie honors. Ochoa didnt fare too poorly against the rest of the Tour either, finishing ninth on the ADT Official Money List with more than $800,000 in earnings. Few doubt if she will win on the LPGA Tour; when and how many times are the only questions.
Europeans Take Back Solheim Cup
Sweden was the site for the eighth staging of The Solheim Cup, Sept. 12-14, and the European team, inspired by a hobbling captain, Catrin Nilsmark, wrestled the Cup back from the U.S. squad with a 17 1/2-10 1/2 victory. Top-notch play from nearly every player on the European team helped close the gap in the U.S. teams all-time lead in the event to 5-3.
40 and Fine
The leaderboards were jammed all season long with names of players past the age of 40 who made their presence felt on a weekly basis. LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame members Beth Daniel and Juli Inkster led the charge.
Daniel won the BMO Financial Group Canadian Womens Open in July (one shot ahead of Inkster) to become the LPGAs oldest tournament winner at 46 years, 8 months and 29 days. Inkster (43) won twice: LPGA Corning Classic, where she tied the LPGAs record for lowest final round with a 62; and the Evian Masters, her 30th career title.
Inkster finished the season fifth on the ADT Official Money List with more than $1 million in earnings, while Daniel finished eighth. Mallon (40) carded the only 60 in LPGA history at the season-opening Welchs/Frys Championship and finished the season with a one-stroke victory over Sorenstam at the ADT Championship. Mallon recorded eight top-10 finishes and finished 12th on the final ADT Official Money List.
In addition, 44-year-old Rosie Jones finished 10th on the money list thanks to nine top-10 finishes, including a win at the Asahi Ryokuken International Championship at Mount Vintage in May.
Koreas Grace Park had a career year that included her fourth LPGA title at the Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill in May, a career-best $1,417,702 in earnings that was good enough for third on the final money list and 19 top-10 finishes.
Park finished the season with 46 rounds in the 60s, which tied Kelly Robbins LPGA record set in 1997, and 403 birdies, marking just the second time in LPGA history that a player eclipsed the 400-birdie mark in a single season (Maria Hjorth, 408 in 1999).
Amazingly, Parks season could have been even better, as she nearly earned her first major championship title at the McDonalds LPGA Championship Presented by AIG, where she lost to Sorenstam in a sudden-death playoff, and she finished .08 points behind Pak in the race for the Vare Trophy.
The aforementioned Kung, who became a Rolex First-Time Winner at the LPGA Takefuji Classic in April, had a record-setting season of her own.
She finished with three wins after back-to-back triumphs at the Wachovia LPGA Classic hosted by Betsy King and the State Farm Classic in August, more than $900,000 in earnings to finish sixth overall and eight top-10 finishes. In just two seasons on the LPGA Tour and at the tender age of 22, Kung has amassed 13 top-10 finishes and more than $1 million in earnings.
Koreas Hee-Won Han, the 2001 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, also became a Rolex First-Time Winner after winning Julys Sybase Big Apple Classic presented by Lincoln Mercury. She would win again at the Wendys Championship for Children at Tartan Fields over Wendy Ward in a thrilling three-hole, sudden-death playoff in August and finished the season with 11 top-10 finishes.
Han finished fourth on the money list with $1,111,860 in earnings, marking the first time she had eclipsed the $1 million mark in single-season earnings. Her breakout year bordered on the colossal, as she also recorded three second-place finishes.
In addition to competing in a pair of mens professional events, Wie, now 14, took on the LPGA Tour seven times in 2003 and won headlines and legions of fans with her smile and 300-yard drives.
Wie burst onto the scene by tying for ninth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March after a third-round 66, and then went on to make the cut in five of her next six LPGA tournaments. She was one who shared national headlines and television exposure with Sorenstam and can be expected to be seen on fairways for years to come.
Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.
The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.
Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.
The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.
Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.
Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.
Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.
A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.
With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.
And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?
“I have no idea,” he laughed.
Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.
The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.
The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.
“So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”
While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.
Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.
Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.
The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.
All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.
Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.
Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.
After Further Review: Whan deserves major credit
Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.
On Mike Whan's really, really good idea ...
If LPGA commissioner Mike Whan hasn’t earned a gold star yet for creating the Race to the CME Globe four years ago, he deserves one now. The race’s finish at the CME Group Tour Championship has become a spectacular fireworks show. Stacy Lewis said it best on Saturday. She said the pressure the top players feel at CME is the “worst” those players feel all year, and by that she meant the “most intense,” the kind that makes for the best weeks.
You can argue there’s more pressure on the top women at the CME than there is in a major. The Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring, the Rolex world No. 1 ranking and the money-winning title all seem to come down to this final week, when there’s also the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot up for grabs. You have to think the weight of all that might have had something to do with Lexi Thompson missing that 2-footer at Sunday’s end. She came away with the Vare Trophy and $1 million jackpot as nice consolation prizes. We all came away thrilled by Ariya Jutanugarn’s birdie-birdie finish amid the gut-wrenching drama. - Randall Mell
On Austin Cook's improbable winner's journey ...
Despite becoming a Monday qualifying sensation on the PGA Tour in 2015, Austin Cook still had to head to Web.com Tour Q-School that winter. There he collapsed over his final four holes to blow a chance at full status, and one year later the cancellation of the Web.com Tour Championship because of Hurricane Matthew left him $425 short of a PGA Tour card.
But Cook put to rest all of his recent near-misses with four days of nearly flawless golf at Sea Island. Now he’s headed to Augusta National in April and exempt through 2020, afforded ample time to look back at how tough breaks in the past helped to shape his unique journey to the winner’s circle. - Will Gray
On what Cook's win says about PGA Tour depth ...
Players talk regularly about the depth of talent on the PGA Tour, claiming that anyone in a particular field can come away with a trophy on any given week.
To prove the point, Austin Cook, No. 306 in the Official World Golf Ranking, rolled over the field at the RSM Classic with rounds of 66-62-66-67 for a four-stroke victory. Before Sunday at Sea Island Resort, Cook’s only triumph in a professional event was at a mini-tour winter series tournament. That payday was $5,000.
His victory at the RSM Classic was worth considerably more and proved, yet again, the depth of the modern game. - Rex Hoggard
Snedeker feels close to 100 percent after RSM week
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Even if the result – a tie for 29th place – wasn't exactly what Brandt Snedeker is accustomed to, given his journey back from injury he’ll consider his final regular-season start of 2017 a success.
Snedeker had been sidelined with a sternum injury since June and overhauled his swing with the help of his coach John Tillery in an attempt to alleviate future injury. Needless to say, his expectations at the RSM Classic were low.
After starting the week with back-to-back rounds of 67 to move into contention, Snedeker wasn’t as sharp on the weekend, but he was still pleased with his week.
“It was great to see how my swing held up and the golf course toughen up today and the changes we made. Inevitably you kind of revert back to what’s comfortable and natural,” he said. “But now my body feels good. I was shocked. I thought I’d be close to 75 percent this week and felt closer to 100 [percent]. Hopefully it continues to stay that way.”
Snedeker said he has a busy schedule planned for early next season on the West Coast and also plans to play next month’s QBE Shootout.
“Every time I’ve come back from injury I’ve been kind of like, well I’m close but not quite there,” said Snedeker, who added that he was pain-free for the entire week. “This is the first time I’ve come back and been like it’s there.”
Cook hopes RSM win starts a ROY campaign
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook cruised to his first PGA Tour victory on Sunday at the RSM Classic, a nearly flawless performance that included just two bogeys for the week and a 21-under total.
Earlier in the week, Cook’s caddie Kip Henley said Cook was playing the most effortless golf he’d ever witnessed. But as is so often the case, it can be tough to tell what is really going on inside a player's mind.
“A lot of stuff going on, especially up here,” Cook laughed pointing at his head. “A little tenseness. This week my ball-striking was great, and for the most part my putting was great as well. All around my game was just incredible this week.”
Following a bogey at the second hole on Sunday that cut his lead to two shots, the rookie responded with a birdie at the seventh hole and added three more over his final four holes to beat J.J. Spaun by four strokes.
It was a timely victory for a player who has set rather lofty goals for himself.
“My goal coming into the year was to win Rookie of the Year and I’ve gotten off to a good start. Now my goal is to make a long deep run into the FedExCup playoffs,” he said.
Cook became the second consecutive rookie winner of the RSM Classic following Mac Hughes’ victory last year.