Watch Out 2002


'If this is what it takes to have fun, then I'm going to keep on doing it.'
These are the ominous words of Annika Sorenstam upon the conclusion of the 2001 season. Three and a half months later she's still doing it - winning that is.
Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and the third, yet riskier, member of the triumvirate Se Ri Pak lead the list of who to watch this season.
Pak made sure she was not a fading star. After a winless 2000 season, she made a gamut of changes and came back strong in 2001.
The young Korean finished second in both Rolex Player of the Year points and season earnings. Of the 21 events she played in, she won five times and earned $1,623,009. If Pak can match her 2001 performance, she could literally give Sorenstam a run for her money. This week Pak unveils her 2002 game at the PING Banner Health amidst bold statements. 'I am tired of second place. I want to be number one,' Pak said.
Sorenstam, Webb, Pak - there's a reason they're called 'the Big Three' and there is no reason they should not continue to dominate the Tour this season.
They will not be alone.
The rookie class of 1999 has produced two players in particular that bear closer inspection - Laura Diaz and Marisa Baena.
In just three short years, Diaz has made her move from the 60s on the money list to finishing in the top 10 in 2001. Her solid play earned her 12 top-10 finishes and a berth at the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship. Diaz, who is friendly with Dottie Pepper and David Duval - both of whom know what it takes to be in the top 10 - finished second three times in 2001 (McDonald's LPGA Championship, the Sybase Big Apple Classic and tied for second at the Welch's/Circle K Championship). A win can't be far off.
Baena of Columbia made a giant leap up the ranks as well - she finished 33rd on the money list in 2001, up from 101st in 2000. Baena, a spunky and much-liked member of the Tour with an electric smile and smooth swing, has great potential.
Maria Hjorth (He-Yorth) of Sweden joined the LPGA in 1998. Her rookie year she earned $133,943 and finished 56th on the money list and in relative obscurity. In 1999 she recorded her first Tour win at the Safeco Classic and went on to win again at the Mizuno Classic. Two wins were impressive enough, but Hjorth continued to impress when it was announced that she won the second event with borrowed clubs (hers were lost by the airline she flew). She finished 11th with $572,940 in winnings. Even though she had a setback in 2000 - finishing 50th - Hjorth, ranked fifth on the 2001 money list, went on to win $848,195 in the 29 events she played to break into the top 10 for the first time.
Some players haven't had a chance to make their mark. Catherine Cartwright and Natalie Gulbis are two such players.
Cartwright is a wee 18-year-old but at six-feet tall she is already a giant in the golf world. In 2000 she finished 57th at Subaru and won the U.S. Women's Public Links Championship. After turning pro, she played in the 2001 Subaru Memorial of Naples and finished with a respectable 65th place. By the time the Tour wraped up in November of 2001, Cartwright - the youngest member of the LPGA Tour - will have just turned 19.
Gulbis is only two months younger than Cartwright, and like her fellow rookie, she has a few things going for her. Gulbis is tough in competition - she proved this when she finished third at Q-school - and she knows how to play with the big girls.
As a 14-year-old in 1997, Gulbis became the youngest person at the time to Monday qualify for an event. She did so at the Longs Drugs Challenge. In 1998, as an amateur, she again played the Longs Drugs Challenge - where she tied for 34th. She also teed it up in the U.S. Women's Open last year.
Two rookies, three up-and-comers and three who lead the way - eight players worth watching this year.