HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. – Welcome to the heart of the LPGA season. Three majors in eight weeks, followed by the emotionally-charged Solheim Cup. Now is the time to peak.
Here at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, however, the focus is more end than beginning. While the LPGA aims to trumpet its depth of talent, particularly the sorority of American starlets, it’s hard to look past the uncertainty of this event.
Paula Creamer didn’t mince words: “I’m 22 years old, this is my fifth year on tour, and we don’t know where one of our majors is going to be. It’s a scary thought, but hopefully everything will fall into the right place.”
Tournament organizers announced last year that McDonald’s 16-year sponsorship would end after the 2009 event. The LPGA will own and operate the tour’s second-longest-running tournament, and expectations are high.
“To be an LPGA member and play your championship, you want that to be the best tournament on your schedule,” Angela Stanford said. “That’s the way it should be.”
LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens plans to run the event much like the PGA Tour’s Players Championship – without a title sponsor. To do that, she needs several presenting sponsors, and to this point, none has come forward. No sponsors, no site.
“I think there’s definitely a level of concern for everyone,” said Cristie Kerr, the LPGA’s 2009 money leader. “Whether it’s your mortgage that you’re looking at or your stock portfolio or your bank account or how many tournaments are up for renewal. . . . It can be pretty overwhelming thinking about it.”
The good news for Bivens is that her product strengthens by the minute. The presence of international players, particularly South Koreans, isn’t slowing, but at least a handful of American players are stepping up to help sell the brand to U.S. companies. It’s OK to think globally, but this tour can’t survive without support from home.
Bulle Rock tends to produce big-name winners. Bivens needs a marquee leaderboard now more than ever.
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MONEY HUNGRY: The LPGA doesn’t keep a record of players leading the money race midway though the year, but Kerr thinks she’s the first American in a long time. Kerr’s victory at Kingsmill put her over the top, and she now leads all players with $776,753. Betsy King was the last American to win the money title, in 1993.
Is Kerr a good pick this week? Here’s all you need to know.
“I tell you, I’m hitting it great,” Kerr said with her typical frankness. “Just going through my routine, trying to execute as purely as I can.”
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PAK’S BACK: Se Ri Pak was nipped last week by In-Kyung Kim, an independent youngster who now owns two LPGA titles.
“They call them Se Ri’s kids,” Pak said Tuesday after her pro-am round. The Hall of Famer was referring to the cadre of Koreans who picked up the sport after she won the 1998 McDonald’s LPGA Championship and U.S. Women’s Open.
Pak’s runner-up finish at State Farm marked her first top 10 of the season. Her longtime instructor, Tom Creavy, is on hand this week and offers a simple answer to what’s working well: “Everything.”
“I feel like so far this year her scores and place on the money list were not an indication of how she was doing,” Creavy said. “Neither of us was really getting frustrated, because we knew it was just around the corner.”
Pak, 31, insists she doesn’t get discouraged when beat by a protégé.
“Because of them, my energy is always full,” she said with a broad smile. “Reminds me of when I was their age.”
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OCHOA ON TRACK: At times this year, Lorena Ochoa seemed grossly out of sorts. She wasn’t the calm, cool Mexican whom we’ve come to admire. After a three-week break, Ochoa appears ready for action. Her caddie, David Brooker, is back on the bag after fracturing a foot in Mexico during a soccer match. Their chemistry is unmatched out here.
Ochoa looked recharged during Tuesday’s pro-am round, joking with playing partners as she bombed drives past them and apologizing for missed birdie attempts.
Watching Ochoa drop balls into the gnarly rough around Bulle Rock’s greens, it was easy to forget she’s at a major. Her practice rounds are low-key. No entourage, just Brooker and Ochoa mapping out a course on which she hasn’t finished outside the top 10.
“If you compare this year to my last season, it’s gone a little bit slow,” Ochoa said.
“I don’t want to say I’m in the best shape ever right now, because it’s not true. But I’m making improvements, and that’s keeping me motivated and keeping me happy.”
Ochoa realizes that though last year’s early-season tear was exhilarating, it also was terribly draining. This year she enters the meat of the season with perhaps her best golf ahead of her. Golf’s favorite Mexican has proved that she can dominate.
For her legacy to grow, she needs to win the big ones.