Last year, unknown rookie teen Song-Hee Kim of Korea won five times and moved on to the 2007 LPGA Tour after a brief stint on the Duramed FUTURES Tour. South Carolinian Kristy McPherson, on the other hand, spent four years before winning twice last season and joining the top five players on the 2006 money list to 'graduate' to the LPGA Tour.
With 88 rookies joining the Duramed FUTURES Tour this year, more 'unknown' talent is certain to emerge over the next 19 tournaments. But those rookies will first have to get past some wily and determined veterans ready to prove a few things to themselves and join their pals at the next level.
'I have experience now and I know I can win,' said returning third-year tour member Ashley Prange of Noblesville, Ind., who won twice in 2006 and finished seventh on the tour's money list. 'I've improved my golf swing so much since LPGA Q-school last fall. And while I know I should be out there with the other girls on the LPGA Tour this year, I'm looking forward to this season.'
Prange, along with returning players Salimah Mussani of Burlington, Ontario, Ha-Na Chae of Seoul, Korea and Ji Min Jeong of Kyungki, Korea, all were winners in 2006. But each came up short of the top five positions on the money list and none were able to secure exempt status at the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament. Jeong, who is not in the Lakeland tournament field, won twice in 2006 and figures to be a top contender this year alongside Prange.
Allison Fouch also will be a returning player with an obvious mission. The fourth-year player from Grand Rapids, Mich., posted seven top-10 finishes in 2006, including two runner-up finishes. One of those second-place finishes came in Lakeland last year. Fouch hopes to find the same comfort zone at Cleveland Heights Golf Course that had her pressuring eventual champion Meaghan Francella right up to the last putt.
Ditto for third-year player Brandi Jackson of Greenville, S.C., who recorded six top-10 finishes in 2006, that included one tie for second and four top-5 finishes. But instead of finally delivering her winner's speech, the former LPGA Tour member was forced to settle for 11th on the season money list. Worse yet, she left LPGA Q-school without a card in hand for 2007.
'My first goal this season is to have a better start than I had last year,' said Jackson, who played collegiately at Furman University. 'I need to win a tournament out here and not just finish second and third. That would be a huge confidence booster.'
To knock the winter rust off her game, Jackson played in several Florida-based Women's Hooter's Tour events during the winter months. She wasn't surprised to bump into Fouch and numerous other members of the Duramed FUTURES Tour who also were getting a jump on the competitive season in the smaller mini-tour events. Returning player Jenny Gleason won three tournaments -- with an 11-shot victory over LPGA star Paula Creamer in her third -- while Jackson also won three times, notching wins in the last two Hooter's Tour events.
'The fields were small, but it was fairly competitive,' said Jackson. 'The idea was to get some early playing time and to be ready when I tee it up this week at the first event.'
Like Fouch, two other members of the 2007 Duramed FUTURES Tour have finished in the dreaded sixth spot on the Tour's money list just out of the automatic fully exempt LPGA Tour cards awarded to the five players. Gleason had that distinction in 2005, and went on to earn non-exempt LPGA Tour status in 2006 and 2007. Emily Bastel of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, finished sixth on the 2004 money list. Bastel went on to earn full LPGA Tour status at LPGA Q-school and played the last two seasons on the LPGA Tour. But Bastel will rejoin the Duramed FUTURES Tour this year in an attempt to regain her full LPGA status.
While she admits she will play some LPGA Tour events this year, Gleason plans to spend 'the majority of the year on the [Duramed] FUTURES Tour.' And with the early success she has had this winter on the Florida mini-tours, Gleason believes she is better prepared to kick off the season this week in Lakeland.
'I've never played well in March and April and it seems like it's always taken me a while to get going,' said Gleason, of Clearwater, Fla. 'But I'm playing a new set of irons, working with a new trainer, now have a swing coach in Florida who can help me when I can't see my coach in North Carolina, and I've improved my wedges. Am I a better player than I was 365 days ago? You bet!'
Gleason admits that it would be easy to wallow in her misfortune of 2005. In addition to not cracking the top five on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, she missed getting her full LPGA Tour card by one shot. And even in 2006, as a non-exempt LPGA Tour member, she got into a dozen LPGA tournaments and missed five cuts by one stroke.
'I learned a whole bunch on the LPGA Tour and I also realized that this Tour taught me a lot of little things that I needed to know,' she said. 'But other than Annika [Sorenstam] and Lorena [Ochoa], I don't think there's anyone who is too good to play the [Duramed] FUTURES Tour.'
This year's rookie class will no doubt begin asserting itself this week alongside the more experienced returning players. One of the top contending rookies likely will be Amanda McCurdy, a member of the winning 2006 U.S. Curtis Cup team.
'I'm nervous and I've been having some bad dreams, but I also know that I'm starting a new chapter in my golf life and I'm very excited about it,' said McCurdy of Fayetteville, Ark., who played collegiately for the Razorbacks. 'I'm still a pup out here and I'm learning, but at least I'm getting to start off the season at a course where I've played.'
Like McCurdy, rookie Noon Huachai of Bangkok, Thailand, also last played Cleveland Heights at the Tour's Qualifying Tournament last November. A high school senior in nearby Orlando, Fla., Huachai will be one of two 17-year-old professionals on the tour's 2007 roster.
'This is the best time of my life to try to compete,' she said. 'My dad talked me into turning pro. He knows what's best for me and I trust him.'
And on Friday this week, 144 players will trust themselves when they take their first official swings on the 2007 Duramed FUTURES Tour. Come September, and 19 tournaments later, who will be holding up the five 2008 LPGA Tour cards?
Only time will tell.