LPGA season begins with myriad storylines


PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Stories can grow larger than life in the Bahamas.

Somewhere beneath the sapphire seas hugging this collection of islands, The Lost City of Atlantis hides, according to local legend. This is also where Blackbeard and Calico Jack and some of the most notorious pirates of a bygone era hoarded stolen treasures. And it’s where mythological, forest-dwelling elfin creatures known as Chickcharnies like to hide, casting charms, both good or bad, to folks who see them.

So it seems a fitting place for LPGA pros to seek to start an enchanting season.

With the new Race to the CME Globe beginning with this week’s season opener on Paradise Island, the first steps will be taken in what could be a magical season for some player.

The Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic initiates the tour’s new season-long points race, a competition that could potentially end in the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf.

A $1 million paycheck awaits the winner of the race at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla. There’s also a $500,000 first-place check up for grabs at the Tour Championship. That means somebody could walk away with $1.5 million in Naples. While $1 million paychecks have been issued on the LPGA’s tour before, nobody’s ever claimed $1.5 million at a women’s event.

“Nothing is guaranteed with this new system,” Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park said. “This new race is going to make everyone on our Tour work a little bit harder because the payoff is so big.”

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, the first of 32 official LPGA events, is scheduled to begin Thursday at the Ocean Club Golf Course. It’s the earliest start to an LPGA season in 13 years.

With LPGA commissioner Mike Whan rebuilding the tour from its anemic 23-event schedule just three years ago, optimism abounds with the new year’s start.

“I’m excited,” Whan said. “I think we’re finally in a spot where we can dream big.”

The Race to the CME Globe isn’t the only new competition woven into this season’s start. There’s also the new International Crown, a mid-season Olympic-style team competition that will pit eight countries against each other at Caves Valley Golf Club outside Baltimore, Md. While the eight teams have already qualified, jockeying to earn roster spots within those teams intensifies.

This isn’t the LPGA’s first foray into the Bahamas. Pure Silk made its debut as a new title sponsor last May, but torrential Caribbean rains almost wiped out the event, flooding the course and forcing the LPGA to play three 12-hole rounds on the driest holes available. Ilhee Lee won the shortened event. She said she barely recognized the place in her return here Tuesday.

The move to January promises better weather, with highs in the 70s and lots of sun forecast all week.

Park won’t be here. Neither will No. 2 Suzann Pettersen, who withdrew from the event on Monday, but four of the top 10 in the world will be looking to get a head start on them this week. No. 3 Stacy Lewis leads the field with No. 4 Lydia Ko adding intrigue in her first start as an LPGA rookie. The 16-year-old is coming off a victory last month, her first as a pro.

Here’s a look at some of the storylines to watch for with the ’14 season about to begin:

The Big Three, Chapter II

Park, Pettersen and Lewis dominated the 2013 season, combining to win 13 of 28 events and all the major championships while bolstering their rankings as the world’s No. 1-2-3 players, respectively.

Who will draw first blood in ’14? Lewis gets the first chance as the only member of the Big Three teeing it up in the Bahamas. Lewis ended 2013 on a hot streak, with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. Over the last two seasons, Lewis has won seven titles, the Rolex Player of the Year award (2012) and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average (2013).

Pettersen ended the year with a chance to overtake Park as world No. 1 in the season-ending CME Group Titleholders. After withdrawing from the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, Pettersen now plans to make her 2014 start at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in two weeks, where she will begin a run of four tournaments over four consecutive weeks. Three of those will be in the Far East, where she has a formidable record. She plans to play the Honda LPGA Thailand, the HSBC Women’s Championship in Singapore and the Mission Hills World Ladies Championship in China. Pettersen has six professional titles in Asia, five of them LPGA events.

Park will be looking to follow up a record-setting season when she makes her start at the Women’s Australian Open, or possibly in Thailand next month. She left her mark on the majors last year, becoming the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to win the first three majors of the year. Her reign as Rolex world No. 1 now stretches to 38 consecutive weeks.

Ko-mania officially comes to the LPGA

Ko, the 16-year-old phenom from New Zealand, will make her debut as an official LPGA rookie member in the Bahamas this week. She showed she isn’t fazed playing for money now that she’s a pro, winning the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters in Taiwan last month in just her second start since turning professional.

It’s a big couple months for Ko. She will be the focus of much attention Down Under in February, when she will defend her title in her Kiwi homeland at the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open, Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Two weeks after that, she’ll tee it up at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, a co-sanctioned LPGA and Ladies European Tour event.

Lexi Thompson’s growing up fast

Thompson is barely a teenager anymore.

The big-hitting American will turn 19 on Feb. 10.

With two victories late last year, Thompson climbed into the top 10 in the Rolex world rankings, leaping over every American other than Lewis, who calls Thompson one of the best ball-strikers in the women’s games. A couple more wins puts Thompson in the hunt for No. 1.

Will Shanshan Feng make it the Big Four?

Feng won two of her last four LPGA starts last season, including the season-ending CME Group Titleholders. She finished second and tied for eighth in those other starts. Her ball-striking rivals Thompson’s.

Kerr and Creamer looking for new balance  

Cristie Kerr had a baby, Paula Creamer got engaged.

For the longest time, these two players took turns as the highest-ranked Americans in the game.

As their personal lives evolve, we’ll watch to see how they meet new challenges.

Kerr will tee it up for the first time this year at the Honda LPGA Thailand next month. She will do so for the first time as a mother. Kerr shared with the world her joy when a surrogate gave birth to her son, Mason Kerr Stevens, last month. She tells GolfChannel.com that her life is changing dramatically with mommy instincts kicking in, something she’s relishing after wondering if she’d ever have a child. With a physical condition challenging her desire to have a child, Kerr and her husband, Erik, considered adoption before choosing to have the baby with a surrogate mother carrying their child.

Kerr turns 37 later this year, and there will be challenges balancing competition and motherhood.

Creamer, 27, will be looking for her first win since she claimed the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010. She’ll do so with a fiancé and evolving priorities, and there will be challenges in that, too.