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Top LPGA players descend on New Jersey for ShopRite Classic

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GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. For the LPGA Tour, however, summer begins this weekend, fittingly enough at a shore resort.

Twenty-one of the top 25 players in the world rankings will take the course Friday, as the ShopRite LPGA Classic begins at the Bay Course at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club, just a few miles from Atlantic City.

The 54-hole affair marks the start of a stretch of five tournaments over the next six weeks, two of them major championships. Brittany Lincicome will defend her title against 143 challengers who will be going after a $1.5 million purse. The champion will collect $225,000.

The field features all seven players who have won official LPGA events so far this season, including top-ranked Yani Tseng, along with Ai Miyazato, Stacy Lewis, Sun Young Yoo, Angela Stanford, Jessica Korda, and Azahara Munoz.

It also includes Morgan Pressel, fresh off her semifinal loss to Munoz at the Sybase Match Play Championship two weeks ago in an event that saw Pressel penalized for slow play.

Cristie Kerr hasn't won a tournament in nearly two years, since the 2010 Wegmans LPGA Championship, but she's known success at Seaview in years past. Kerr won here in 2004 and tied for second last year, one shot behind Lincicome. She also tied for third here in 2001, and has two top-10 finishes this season.

Kerr has a familiar face on her bag this week. She's reunited with Worth Blackwelder, who caddied for her earlier in her career. In fact, Blackwelder worked with Kerr when she won this tournament eight years ago, one of five victories the two have as a team.

''I like to be part of the team,'' Kerr said. ''Yes, I drive the ship, but I like to have a teammate out there. You need them to obviously get the information correct and be able to judge conditions and to know your game.

''So you've got to get information correct and you have to have somebody that knows your game and kind of knows how you tick, and you have to have somebody that's positive because things aren't always going to go well. You need to have somebody that's a support structure as well. Worth's got all of that.''

The 34-year old Kerr is fifth in the world rankings and the highest-rated American. She points out that it's become more difficult for American players to stand out on a tour that has truly become a global one.

''I think really, honestly, in the last couple years I think we have stepped up,'' she said. ''Angela's won this year. Stacy's won this year. I have not won in over a year now, and I'm looking to get back into the winner's circle.

''You say I'm the top-ranked American. I have to work hard to keep that. There are a lot of talented people out here and I don't discount that.''

Lewis also has her sights set on being the top American player. The 27-year old, who is currently ranked seventh in the world, picked up her second career victory at the Mobile LPGA Classic in Alabama in late April, the last time the LPGA conducted a full-field event.

Her first win came 14 months ago at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

''It was satisfying just to win again,'' she said, ''and to be in contention and have that feeling again. I guess it kind of proves to people that I'm here to stay and want to keep winning.''

Lewis admits that being the top American in her sport matters a lot to her.

''That was one of my goals coming into the year,'' she said, ''to continue to move up the rankings and also earn Solheim Cup points. That's something that I've been looking at. I watch them and I want to be in the top spot too.''

The Bay Course at Seaview is as short as many of the players will see all year at just at just 6,155 yards with a par of 71. Originally designed by Donald Ross and Hugh Wilson, it's a links-style test with small greens that place a premium on accuracy.

The wind is the course's first line of defense. If the breeze picks up it can play significantly longer than the listed yardage. If the conditions remain calm, birdie opportunities are abundant. Lincicome finished at 11 under par for the 54 holes a year ago. Miyazato finished at 16 under when she won here in 2010 when the tournament returned to the LPGA schedule after a three-year hiatus.

It was first played in 1986.

Inclement weather is in the weekend forecast, particularly for Friday and Saturday.

NOTES: Three-time U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur champion Meghan Stasi, a New Jersey native, is in the field on a sponsor's exemption. ... This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1942 PGA Championship, which was held at Seaview. Sam Snead defeated Jim Turnesa in the championship match to claim the first of his seven major championships. ... The LPGA announced that Cheyenne Woods, the niece of Tiger, will make her professional debut next week at the Wegmans LPGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y. She'll be playing on a sponsor exemption after competing in the event as an amateur in 2009.