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More than a title on the line at LPGA Tour Championship

LPGA Tour _newORLANDO, Fla. – The LPGA Tour Championship is more than just a season finale this year, with the current razor-thin margins in the race to win the Player of the Year honors and top spot in the world rankings adding plenty of intrigue.

All that will be decided when the tournament begins Thursday at Grand Cypress Golf Club.

For the first time in a decade, Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam won’t win Player of the Year. That leaves five in the field with an opportunity to take home the LPGA’s top honor.

“We have got big pressure,” said Jiyai Shin, who begins play with the top spot.

Shin also has a little added pressure.

Shin and Na Yeon Choi have a chance to be the first Koreans to win Player of the Year. They’ve also noticed more Korean media than usual this week lining the fairways and greens for every practice stroke, and interview requests back home are at an all-time high.

“It will be my dream come true if I get the award,” Choi said.

Cristie Kerr could become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to claim the award. Yani Tseng would be the first from Taiwan, and Ai Miyazato of Japan is also in contention.

Miyazato, however, can’t finish No. 1 in the world rankings, but Suzann Pettersen, who doesn’t have enough points to win Player of the Year, can move into the top spot with a victory.

All this is the result of the sport’s top two players in retirement.

Since Ochoa bid farewell to the tour in May, the top spot has shuffled nine times among three players – Shin, Kerr and Miyazato. None of the players in contention could ever remember the three biggest awards – which also includes the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average – at stake so late in the season, much less the finale.

“It is exciting to have the chance, because in years past, it’s been pretty much over by the half-year mark,” Kerr said.

The tournament also marks the LPGA’s first in the Sunshine State since 2008.

Based in Daytona Beach, the LPGA had as many as three Florida events at one time before then but was without one last year. That came as a surprise to some players given the popularity of golf and the nearly year-round warm weather in Florida.

And with dozens of players doubling as central Florida residents, it’s an added incentive to end the year at home.

“We feel we belong with a tournament here,” said Paula Creamer, who lives in the Isleworth community only a few miles away. “It’s just kind of crazy that we haven’t had one for a while.”

The LPGA Tour Championship will keep the format it used last season, cutting to the lowest 70 scores and ties after 36 holes and an additional cut after 54 holes to the lowest 30 players and ties. That makes the margin for error even slimmer.

Especially at the top.

The format makes a big final-day push almost impossible, because to even make it to Sunday players will have to be in close contention. Of course, the five up for Player of the Year know plenty about winning.

They have combined to win 14 of the 25 events this year, including three of the four majors. Tseng won the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Women’s British Open, and Kerr took home the LPGA Championship.

As exciting as those others victories were, all five admitted that Player of the Year honors would top everything.

“For me. Player of the Year is kind of it,” Kerr said. “It’s what you see happening every year, what you wish would happen to you. And I think it’s the yearlong culmination of you’re the best player, this is what it was, these are the points, this is a point toward the Hall of Fame.

“It’s something like winning a major championship and having that trophy in your house and seeing it going, ‘That’s something nobody can ever take away from you.”’