Big Challenge Awaits in California

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DANVILLE, Calif. ' At this week's Longs Drugs Challenge, defending champion Nicole Perrot will face quite a challenge.
 
One of the strongest fields of the year has assembled for a shot at the winner's share of the $1.1 million purse, including 18 of the top-20 players in the world, and any memories Perrot has of the golf course where she captured her first career title will be irrelevant, as the event has moved from the Sacramento area after 10 years to beautiful Blackhawk County Club in Danville, Calif.
 
Last year, Perrot became one of 10 Rolex First-Time Winners on the LPGA Tour, and the first Chilean to capture an LPGA title, with a one-stroke victory over Hee-Won Han. The fiery Perrot, now 22, took a three-shot lead into the final round before making bogey on holes one, three and five to fall back to the field. But she steadied her nerves and posted two cluch birdies on 15 and 16 to eek out a win with a 270 (-14) total.
 
Joining Perrot are six additional former Longs Drugs Challenge champions, including Kelly Robbins (1996), world number-one Annika Sorenstam (1997), Northern California resident Juli Inkster (1999-2000), 2006 major championship winner Se Ri Pak (2001), three-time tournament winner this season Cristie Kerr (2002) and local favorite Christina Kim (2004).
 
Last year, Paula Creamer was not in the tournament field, but had two wins under her belt, the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year title on her resume and was on her way to having more than $1.5 million in her pocket, an LPGA rookie earnings record.
 
This year, the Pleasanton, Calif., native will tee it up in Danville, and the homecoming would be the ideal setting for the 20-year-old to hoist the first trophy of her sophomore year on Tour. Although she has not yet won this season, Creamer has been a tough competitor with more than $800,000 in season earnings and ranks 12 th on the ADT Official Money List.
 
The 2006 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award could also be secured this week. Seon-Hwa Lee has been the top rookie on Tour nearly all year, aided by a victory at the ShopRite LPGA Classic and $853,150 in season earnings. Lee (998 points) holds a 238-point lead over Ai Miyazato (760), while Jee Young Lee (758) is in third, followed by Julieta Granada (711).
 
With Miyazato and Jee Young Lee playing in tournaments overseas this week, neither can catch Seon-Hwa Lee, even with a win at the final full-field event in two weeks, the Corona Morelia Championship (a win is worth 150 points). Granada would not only have to win the Longs Drugs Challenge, but also the Corona Morelia Championship for a chance to overtake Seon-Hwa Lee for the title. Therefore, only a Granada win this week would extend the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year to one more event.
 
Other players to watch this week include Pat Hurst, who grew up minutes away from the course in San Leandro.
 
LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame member Inkster also has a short commute to the course this week and, after tasting victory at the 1999 and 2000 events, is easily a favorite to become the sixth multiple winner on Tour this year.
 
Not to be overlooked, Kerr most recently won the John Q. Hammons Hotel Classic presented by SemGroup for her third win this season. Kerr, who leads the Tour in birdies (319) and Putts per GIR (1.72), became a Rolex First-Time Winner at the 2002 Longs Drugs Challenge and has posted 14 top-10 finishes in 21 events this season.
 
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