Players on the 'Official Developmental Tour of the LPGA' opened the year eager to compete for an expanded number of five fully exempt LPGA Tour cards awarded at the end of the season to players in the top five Futures Tour Money List positions. The expansion to five cards was announced March 18th by the LPGA. It was a giant leap forward since the Tour had received three LPGA cards in each of the last four seasons, graduating such rising-star players as Grace Park, Beth Bauer and Lorena Ochoa.
Also outlined was an improved direct entry into October's LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament for players ranked sixth through 10th on the Futures Tour Money List. Twenty-nine Futures Tour players earned some type of LPGA Tour playing status at that event in October.
But the wide-eyed eagerness of 300 Futures Tour hopefuls from 28 nations who competed weeks later in the early-November Futures Tour Qualifying Tournament was overshadowed by the recent death of three-year player Heather Wilbur of Canada, who lost her battle with leukemia on October 21 after less than a year. Wilbur was 27 with a developing game and improving results. Her death dramatically affected her young Tour peers, many who had little or no experience with mortality issues. They could only ask 'Why?' and attempt to collect themselves in the midst of the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament, where many first heard the news.
The Tour's 2003 season was a stage from which new talent emerged and ultimately spring boarded on to the LPGA Tour. South Korean rookie Soo Young Moon, a non-exempt member of the LPGA Tour, won the season's opening Lakeland Futures Golf Classic to kick off the year. The 19-year-old native of Keumsan, South Korea, posted nine top-10 finishes in 16 starts this season, including three runner-up finishes and two wins.
A co-medalist at the Futures Tour Qualifying Tournament in fall 2002, Moon's energized 2003 campaign for top season honors had moved her into the leading position on the Tour's Money List by early June. But the Korean encountered her biggest challenge of the year. Moon suffered injuries in a car accident early in the week of the Aurora Health Care Futures Charity Golf Classic in Sussex, Wis. Injuries forced her to withdraw from the tournament and to sit out of competition for two weeks.
Moon returned to action at the Michelob Light Futures Charity Golf Classic in Decatur, Ill., in mid-June, where she finished in a season-worst tie for 42nd. The talented teen climbed back into the top 10 the following week at the Bank of Ann Arbor Futures Classic in Michigan, where she tied for fifth. Finally, four weeks after the accident, she won the M&T Bank Loretto Futures Golf Classic in Syracuse, N.Y. Moon finished second on the Futures Tour Money List with $49,234 in season earnings and earned honors as the Futures Tour Rookie of the Year, earning her exempt LPGA Tour status for 2004.
Only Stacy Prammanasudh of Enid, Okla., beat out Moon as top money winner and Player of the Year. The former four-time All-American at the University of Tulsa won twice, finished second twice, posted a total of 11 top-10s in 14 events and earned a Tour-best $57,760. The non-exempt member of the LPGA Tour posted a season scoring average of 70.60 and joined Moon as a recipient of one of the five awarded exempt-status LPGA Tour cards. Her wins came at the Frye Chevrolet Classic in late April in Wichita, Kan., and again in mid-July at the Lincoln Financial Futures Golf Classic in Avon, Conn.
Just as Prammanasudh successfully transitioned from college golf to professional golf, so did 2001 NCAA Champion Candy Hannemann of Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The former Duke University star was on the cusp of earning one of five exempt LPGA cards and made the most of her position by winning two of the last three tournaments to jump into the top five. Hannemann captured her first professional win in early August at the Hunters Oak Futures Golf Classic in Queenstown, Md., then put a cap on the year at the final event Aug. 15-17, with a win at the culminating York Newspaper Company Futures Classic. Heading into the final event in York, Pa., Hannemann, 23, was fifth on the money list, having moved into the top-five after her first win two weeks earlier at Hunters Oak. Her $10,500 first-place check in York bumped up her season earnings to $43,097 and moved her into third place. The Brazilian posted eight top-10 finishes in 14 tournaments.
Hannemann's long-time friend from junior golf, Reilley Rankin, also emerged as a former NCAA All-American to become a winner on the professional level. Perhaps the most compelling story all year, Rankin not only successfully transitioned as a Futures Tour winner with two titles in her third season, but she also came full circle in a gallant long-term rehabilitative effort. Rankin survived a frightening diving accident in 1999 that not only threatened her future in golf, but also her life. The University of Georgia product mended broken vertebrae and bruised vital organs, turned professional in the summer of 2001 after her junior season at Georgia, and won her first pro tournament this May in Merrillville, Ind., at the Northwest Indiana Futures Golf Classic.
Rankin, 24, earned her second season title at the storm-shortened Betty Puskar Futures Golf Classic in Morgantown, W. Va., Aug. 8-10, and earned the fifth exempt LPGA Tour card with six top-10 finishes. Her second Futures Tour win moved her from eighth to fourth on the Futures Tour Money List, before she settled into the No. 5 spot after the final event with season earnings of $35,245.
Earning the fourth LPGA card was South Korean Ju Kim, who missed getting one of the Futures Tour's three exempt LPGA Tour cards in 2001 by $211. Kim didn't come up short this time. She won the Bank of Ann Arbor Futures Classic in late June, charging into the lead from six shots back of second-round leader Prammanasudh. She finished second in late May, losing a two-hole playoff in Sussex, Wis. Kim also finished third twice and recorded eight top-10 finishes in 17 events. With season earnings of $37,255, she on to the 2004 LPGA Tour.
Once the college season was over and the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship was complete, the Futures Tour gained two new members who made an immediate impact. Former Pepperdine University teammates and Australian compatriots Katherine Hull and Lindsey Wright turned professional after graduation and made their presence felt early. Hull won her pro debut May 30-June 1, at the Aurora Health Care Futures Charity Golf Classic, then added a back-to-back victory the next week at the Lima Memorial Hospital Foundation Futures Classic in Lima, Ohio. Not to be outperformed by her four-year collegiate rival, Wright captured her first professional title in a playoff at the GE Futures Professional Golf Classic in mid-July in Altamont, N.Y.
In her third season as a professional, Catherine Cartwright squeaked past Hannemann in early May to win her first Futures Tour title at the Isleta Casino & Resort Futures Golf Classic. But the 20-year-old emerging pro from Bonita Springs, Fla., represented the opposite end of the proverbial spectrum from Vicki Fergon, who won the week prior in El Paso, Texas at the IOS Futures Golf Classic. Fergon, a 26-year member of the LPGA Tour, used her veteran's savvy in 50-mph wind gusts to stay patient enough in the Texas sand blast to win at even-par 216. It was Fergon's first Futures Tour event and her win gave her the distinction of becoming the first woman to win on the Futures Tour, LPGA Tour and Women's Senior Golf Tour.
Golf headlines sizzled all season around the spectacle of top LPGA Tour player Annika Sorenstam, but it was PGA teaching professional Suzy Whaley, who inspired the Swede to compete in a PGA Tour event. Whaley earned the right to compete in the PGA's Greater Hartford Open (GHO) after qualifying as the winner of the 2002 Connecticut Sectional PGA Championship. As part of her tune-up for the GHO, Whaley, head professional at Futures Tour host site Blue Fox Run Golf Club, played in the Lincoln Financial Futures Golf Classic at her home course in Avon, Conn. Whaley fired the low nine-hole score of 30 in the second round and finished the 54-hole event at even-par 213.
Just as the LPGA Tour has experienced a groundswell of interest by Asian players in recent years, the Futures Golf Tour also has seen the highest Asian participation in its history. At November's Futures Tour Qualifying Tournament, 23 players from South Korea, 15 from Japan, five from China, as well as one player each from Taiwan, Thailand and The Philippines, competed in the 2003 event. Among the five players who earned exempt LPGA status following the 2003 Futures Tour season, two of the card winners were South Korean.
Overall, international participation and membership is at an all-time high, with players from 28 nations competing in this year's Futures Tour Qualifying Tournament. Second highest in participation from outside the United States was Canada, with 22 players, and Sweden, with eight. All total for the last five years, of 17 Futures Tour players who have automatically earned exempt LPGA Tour cards, nine have been international players.
Futures Tour members also are making a bigger impact on the LPGA Tour. They earned 15 of the 28 exempt LPGA cards awarded at the LPGA's Final Qualifying Tournament and 14 of the 35 non-exempt cards. A total of 58 Futures Tour members were in the field of 130 players competing in this year's LPGA qualifier.
The 2003 season also was a record-setting year for accuracy. Thirteen holes-in-one were recorded this year, including four at the GE Futures Golf Classic in Altamont, N.Y. The previous record was 11 aces, recorded in 2000.
But while 2003 was a year that marked new milestones for accomplishments, Tour members took the time to reflect on the life of their friend and colleague, Heather Wilbur - the good-natured woman from Moncton, New Brunswick who won hearts across America with her quick smile and small-town naivet. In her memory, the Tour established a player award to be presented annually. The Heather Wilbur Spirit Award, of which Wilbur was made the first recipient in October, will be presented to a Futures Tour player who best exemplifies dedication, courage, perseverance, love of the game and spirit toward achieving goals as a professional golfer. Players will vote for the recipient each year.
And as the Futures Golf Tour completes its 23rd season, each new year offers greater promise and opportunity for the future stars of women's golf.