I wouldn't miss the opening of LPGA golf season for the world so I am back from my brief respite to enjoy the festivities. The final field has already been chosen and viewers will have a first-hand opportunity to see both emerging golf stars as well as to welcome back some familiar faces.
In addition, the SBS Open will be played at the spectacular Turtle Bay Resort in Oahu. For readers who follow Big Break V:Hawaii, this is the same retreat that functions as the reality show's training ground. The winner of BBV will have the opportunity to challenge the top performers in the field of women's golf later in the season.
As for this week, over 130 ladies attempt to take home the first official trophy of 2006, gain both a little momentum at this 54-hole stroke play event and a share of the respectable $1 million purse.
Let's get ready to rumble!
Defending champion Jennifer Rosales had her work cut out for her last year as she narrowly defeated both Michelle Wie and Cristie Kerr by a mere two strokes. "J-Ro" persevered but with a score which was barely enough to overtake both the Hawaiian phenom and the seasoned veteran.
The big news last year was the emergence of "The Big Wiesy" as a contender in the professional women's golf arena. She comfortably made birdie putts on that Sunday, rising admirably to the challenge and had just finished off an impressive previous week teeing it up with the men at the Sony Open. In just one year, Wie jumped from teen anonymity to international superstardom.
Another headliner in 2005 was newcomer Paula Creamer who made her first professional career start at the SBS Open after medalling at Q-School. "The Pink Panther" finished respectably in a tie for 40th positon that day but kept climbing up the money list to eventually challenge "Annika the Great" with a second place finale on the Official ADT Money List.
Two LPGA-sanctioned wins, two overseas victories and numerous top- ten's gave Paula the wherewithall to be able to fund two one-year scholarship programs for "First Tee" students. I'm happy to report that Creamer will also donate a scholarship for forty first tee students to improve their games at the David Leadbetter Academy for one week this summer.
Rosales and Creamer will both attend this week's premier LPGA event although I'm not sure that Wie will be there. She is not listed among the final field and I'm sure that she had to choose exemptions which would benefit her so I believe Michelle's first official event will be at the Fields Open in Hawaii, the second LPGA-sanctioned event of
Morgan Pressel is using the SBS Open as a tune-up for the Fields event. Pressel has been very outspoken lately about Wie's exempt status and how she should have to gain exemption through qualification.
"I don't think she needs an exemption." states a pouty Pressel. "I've been through qualifying. Everybody who doesn't make it on the money list, other amateurs, other professionals that aren't members of the tour, they all have to go through qualifying, too. I don't see why she shouldn't, or why she should be afraid, or expect an exemption."
Stop crying Morgan and start winning. Let your sticks do the talking!
The 2006 Q-School medalist, Ai Miyazato, will also make her official appearance this week and again at the Fields Open next week. Even though Miyazato played poorly in the World Cup, the first "unofficial" event of the year, I hope that Creamer's 40th placement at the 2005 SBS will give Ai hope that a solid season is more than possible. I'm still a believer that Miyazato wil bring home a few trophies season once the pressure dissipates, perhaps even a major.
The Rookies Take the Field!
Although most of us are already all too familiar with "golden child" Morgan Pressel who will most certainly make waves in the LPGA, there are a few addtional newbies to the field most certain to attract attention.
Julieta Granada has earned a place on the American Junior Girls Assn.'s All America Team from 2001-2004 (even though she was born in Paraguay she lives in Florida). She was also the AJGA Rolex Player of the Year. Julieta even claimed runner-up status on the Futures Tour last season in her first professional tournament! Tying for sixth place at Q-School with Kate Golden, Granada has been playing golf alongside of Morgan Pressel in the AJGA for years but is not as vocal as her golfing counterpart. Even though Julieta is just starting her professional career, most who watch the upcoming stars have probably noticed her name for years. Just coming into her own expect to see Granada's name in the top-ten position of the leaderboard this season.
Katie Futcher tied for fourth place at Q-School and was NCAA All-American two years in a row. She has just turned professional. Whereas the Texas native is an All-American addition to the LPGA, newcomer Na Ri Kim is purely South Korean, leading the KLPGA Dream Tour Money list. With limited amateur experience Kim shared ninth position at Q-School and plans to become one of the numerous ladies who are part of the winning Asian contingency.
Let's not forget about Brittany Lang who quietly shared second place with Morgan Pressel at the U.S. Open. This "Duke" girl has plenty of game but is not as outspoken as some of the other young players on tour. Her brother is also an All-conference golfer and doubles as her caddy. With numerous amateur titles under her belt and already several appearances on the LPGA Tour, expect Brittany to make a splash this season.
The Veterans are Ready to Win!
Don't expect for the veterans to stand by while the newcomers walk away with all of the trophies! Paula Creamer is back in action and looking to remove Annika Sorenstam from her coveted spot atop the money list. Her rookie season was not only phenomenal but a prediction of things to come.
Chomping at the bit is none other than Creamer's Solheim Cup pal Natalie Gulbis. It's about time that Gulbis took a victory and hopefully this will be her year to shine. With Butch Harmon as her swing coach, expect Natalie to stay on top of the leaderboard and improve on her 2005 $1 million season.
The Solheim Cup's Team USA's triple threat came by way of Christina Kim. The colorful, happy golfer is no longer a rookie, both winning last year and being in contention throughout the season. I expect incredible and action-packed moments from Kim (and for her to add a few more victories to her trophy cabinet).
LET/LPGA golfer Laura Davies is one of the better grinders on tour and has a swing reminicent of Big John Daly. Her "grip-it-and-rip-it" attitude has a tendency to backfire but don't expect Davies to change. She's going to win her way.
While Divina Delasin makes waves on The Big Break V, sister Dorothy comes back for another season as a professional on tour. Although last season was very average for Dorothy, perhaps watching sister Divina try to make it to the point that the LPGA star has worked so hard to achieve will give her encouragement and strength to finally win one.
Hall-of-Famers Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb are set to start of the season with plenty of gusto. Webb recently attempted to defend her victory at the ANZ Australian Open but to no avail. She says she's ready and has been taking steps to improve her health and swing. Perhaps this is the year which Karrie takes back the top of the leaderboard?
LPGA Playoffs 2006 - Drama Building 101
The season-opener is not all about the $150,000 first prize or even the improved second place purse of $91.325. The ladies are all vying for points which could create one of the most exciting finales of the year.
LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens calls it the "X-Factor". "It" is the first ever playoff system that was unveiled by the LPGA in 2005 and begins this week at the SBS Open. Golfers will try to qualify for the season-ending nailbiter, the ADT Championship, which comes with a first-place check of $1 million as well as the title "season champion"!
"Every tournament is a piece of the puzzle that builds to an exciting conclusion at the ADT Championship," said Bivens. "Every shot-from the first tee shot in Hawaii to the last putt at the season-ending event-is worth more than ever. No one knows how this is all going to play out or who might have that 6-footer for birdie at the ADT Championship to decide whether she takes home $1 million or $100,000. That's what makes the LPGA Playoffs 2006 an unpredictable and wildly engaging adventure for both our players and LPGA fans."
The official season will be split into two sections with fifteen ladies from each half of the season competing at the ADT Championship. The first half of the season ends with the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic and part deux is completed right before the ADT at the Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions.
There will also be two "wild card" spots all leading up to three days of playoffs and then the final round of the season giving away the largest prize in LPGA history.
Ladies, start your engines! This season will be fast-paced and explosive! The race to a million is just beginning!
The Golf Channel will air the SBS Open from February 16th-18th nightly from 6:30-9:00 p.m. (ET).