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LPGA Back After Long Break

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This week, some five months after 2001s final LPGA full-field event, the tour is back. The LPGA Takefuji Classic marks the first event of the 2002 schedule. It will be contested at the Waikoloa Beach Resort ' Beach Course and if the last few days are any indication, the ladies better keep their caps and visors handy.
 
Trade winds have gusted to 40 miles per hour here on the Big Island, which should make for some interesting rounds once play begins on Thursday. And heres a surprise: Annika Sorenstam has blown in as well with victory in tow.
 
Last weekend Sorenstam outlasted Karrie Webb in a four-hole playoff to win the Australian Ladies Masters. Fifteen or so hours on a plane and Sorenstam begins her 2002 LPGA season trying to somehow match or better the eight-win, six-runner-up finish season of a year ago.
 
As for the win Down Under, Sorenstam told me it was 'fun and exciting to make the comeback in the final round.' Sorenstam began the final round four shots back of the lead, but caught Webb and eventually beat her in the playoff.
 
As for this week, Webb is not here. Shes still in Australia competing in the Australian Open. Canadian Lorie Kane defends this week, although not on the same course that she conquered a year ago at the Takefuji Classic. Last years event was played at the Kona Country Club, but Kane told me shes 'worked very hard on her game recently, and might just be a bit motivated by the Canadian hockey gold medals.' Those who know the LPGA Tour realize that Kane is more than able to win, regardless of familiarity with the golf course.
 
Also in the field are the likes of Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, Swedes Carin Koch and Helen Alfredson, Grace Park and an interesting mix of younger players looking to establish themselves on tour.
 
Tampa's Beth Bauer makes her debut as an official tour member. The former Duke Blue Devil whos won just about everything as shes worked her way to LPGA Tour status is joined by heralded Natalie Gulbis from Sacramento, Calif., and Catherine Cartwright, whos gone from high school to the LPGA Tour.
 
But perhaps the most intriguing story of the week is a 12-year-old from Honolulu named Michelle Wei. Thats right, 12! The amateur became the youngest to ever Monday qualify for an LPGA Tour event, having shot 83 in the 40 mile-per-hour gusts to edge veteran tour players Leigh Ann Mills (84) and Jean Zedlitz (85). The other spot went to amateur Sally Soranka, who shot 79.
 
For the record, prior to Weis effort, now tour rookie Gulbis was the youngest to Monday qualify. She did it at the age of 14 at the 1997 Longs Drugs Challenge.
 
Being that they are amateurs, neither Soranka or Wei can collect on the $900,000 purse which will pay $135,000 to the winner.
 
This weeks Takefuji Classic is the first of 22 full-field events in 2002 that will pay out a total of $38.8 million. Thirteen official money events have announced purse increases this year, with the average prize money being $1.19 million.