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LPGA back on American soil

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Phoenix, Ariz. - For those of us at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup, it feels like the start of a new season.

This is the first LPGA event on American soil this season, but event No. 4 on the schedule. Trips to Australia, Thailand and Singapore have already been completed, producing a variety of winners, including youngster Jessica Korda, the world No. 1 Yani Tseng and the experienced campaigner Angela Stanford.

Now the meat of the season begins with the tour’s first full-field event, giving us a chance to look ahead at what the season holds.

First on the agenda is Yani Tseng,  the clear world No. 1 who has already made a dent in 2012 with her successful defense at the Honda LPGA Thailand.  She is clearly the player to beat on tour and the task of unsettling her from the perch is enormous. Her closest challenger in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings is Na Yeon Choi, with five top-5 finishes in her last seven starts.

Choi could provide some competition to Tseng but it’ll be a tough task. The same can be said for Suzann Pettersen, the world No. 3, who won three times in 2011. But a sluggish start to the season will not provoke fear in Tseng. Pettersen has a new bagman this season, the experienced Terry McNamara - a 30-year veteran of the caddie ranks who guided Annika Sorenstam through her glory years. Will that be the catalyst for the Norwegian who most feel has failed to live-up to her huge potential?

The American challenge will be lead by Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson. At only 17, Thompson is providing by far the most excitement in the homegrown ranks with two victories in the last six months. Had she been a member in 2011, Lexi would have lead the tour’s driving distance category. Her raw power coupled with fearless youth is a killer combination. Kerr and Creamer were surprisingly winless in 2011, the chance of that happening in 2012 is almost unthinkable, not only for the media but surely by themselves.

This week also marks the chance us to meet the rookies. Those graduating from Q-School and the Symetra Tour have picked a bad year to set their sights on the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honor. Thompson begins her first season as an LPGA member, as does last year’s U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu. The leading money winner on the 2011 Symetra Tour, Kathleen Ekey could provide a surprise package and will surely win some admirers during her 2012 campaign. Argentine youngster Victoria Tanco is also one to watch.

On a broader scale, there is certainly a sense this week that the LPGA has turned the corner. Commissioner Mike Whan has settled into his role, building a solid backroom staff who have been instrumental in adding new events in Hawaii, Canada and Virginia. The tour has a worldwide star in Tseng, whose talent seems endless. She’s grasping the English language and is working hard to build her profile in the U.S., even taking time to appear on the upcoming ‘Big Break Atlantis,’ one of numerous media outings she’s completed in the last few months.

Last but not least there’s Michelle Wie, who finishes her studies at Stanford this month and can now focus full time on her golfing career. Wie still has the ‘x-factor’ that draws galleries, television viewers and new fans to the LPGA, but her presence on the tour is slowly dwindling. With college behind, her she has the chance this year to right the ship.

Golf Channel  kicks off the season with four days of live coverage beginning Thursday in Phoenix, something you’ll see more of in 2012 as we try to scale back of tape-delayed broadcasts. We hope you can join us for what will we hope but a memorable season.