RICHMOND, Texas – Jiyai Shin can become the first rookie in more than three decades to win the Player of the Year award with a strong performance at the LPGA Tour Championship, which begins Thursday just outside of Houston.
The 21-year-old Korean will face a star-packed field at The Houstonian Country Club, where the $225,000 first prize would help her end Lorena Ochoa’s reign over the women’s tour. Ochoa has been the Player of the Year the past three seasons.
Shin won three times last year as a nonmember of the LPGA, including the Women’s British Open, and followed with three more wins and 11 top-10 finishes this year.
“I started the year off with my goal to win Rookie of the Year and now I have a chance for Player of the Year,” Shin said. “That makes me happy.”
Michelle Wie is also in the field, coming off her first professional win last week in Mexico, which might help deflect attention from the battle for Player of the Year.
There are other story lines running under the tournament, including Ochoa’s upcoming wedding to the CEO of her largest sponsor, AeroMexico, and the presence of third-ranked Christie Kerr and young superstar Paula Creamer.
Wie hopes that it doesn’t take nearly as long for her second victory as it did her first. Her win in Mexico gave the sport a desperately needed boost, coming just a few days before word leaked out that the calendar will be trimmed to only 24 events next season.
“I went through some ups and downs, but it was a great learning experience for me this year,” Wie said. “For sure it’s (pressure) definitely off my back and I think hopefully life will be better, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
New commissioner Michael Wahn saw firsthand how important Wie could be to revitalizing the tour when he attended a pro-am party Tuesday night.
“I came in late and when I walked in, I noticed the bidding was up to $22,000,” Wahn said. “I asked somebody what they were bidding on and they said, ‘They’re bidding to play golf with Michelle Wie.’
“Now, that’s star power right there,” he said of the winning bid of $25,000. “It’s going to be a very exciting week and it could be a very exciting couple of years.”
Ochoa will be trying for her fourth win this year, which would guarantee her another Player of the Year award, but anything else would mean she needs help from other players.
“It’s been a really good year for me in ways, sometimes difficult on the golf course, but I’m very happy,” Ochoa said. “I have a lot of things to focus on off the golf course. I’m just going to try to enjoy the week and then get ready for the wedding.”
Natalie Gulbis withdrew early Wednesday with an undisclosed illness.