RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – On the eve of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, five storylines to watch:
1. Some things never change: Stacy Lewis’ closet probably smells a little bit like lake water, and she’s OK with that. It’s a good reminder of last year’s jump into Poppie’s Pond.
Lewis’ pre-tournament news conference was filled with talk of a title defense – from holding off World No. 1 Yani Tseng down the stretch to the jump into the pond to the hectic year that a major title sparked. As Lewis relived the week, admired the trophy sitting next to her and updated the audience on the state of the robe she donned post-jump, the moderator broke into the reminiscing with this question: “Do you feel a lot more relaxed this year?”
It was in reference to Lewis’ calm demeanor on the interview stage, and the reserved Lewis didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s still not my favorite thing to do, I’ll tell you that, but I’m definitely more comfortable,” she said.
Being a major champion, and a defending champion, means Lewis has had lots of practice in front of crowds in the past year as her list of commitments and obligations grows. She is receiving more outreach from fans than ever – especially from kids inspired by her story – and has a new sponsor in KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm that also sponsors Phil Mickelson (the latter announcement played a giant role in Wednesday’s news conference).
It also means Lewis has a target on her back at Mission Hills. She ranks among the players to beat this week, and she loves it.
“I want people to write that, and I want people to know that,” she said. “I feel like I can tee it up with (Yani Tseng) and contend with her.”
Despite the differences a year brings, Lewis remains largely the same – somewhat shy, very driven and always inspiring. And even though Mission Hills prompts good memories, there nerves persist. It is, after all, a major championship.
“If you’re not nervous, I think you’re not human or something,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to be nervous to be on the first tee.”
2.) Bottomed out: Amid all that talk of Poppie’s Pond was the memory of Lewis’ mother, Carol, injuring her leg when she joined her daughter for the jump and landed in a shallow area. That won’t happen this year, as the bottom of the pond was deepened in preparation for another jump. Lewis joined the original splasher, Amy Alcott, in pouring in the final six gallons of water into the pond earlier this week.
If Lewis wins, count on a redemption jump from Carol.
“I told her it was just me and her going, because she has to redeem herself,” Lewis said.
3.) From another defending champ: Morgan Pressel, who won the Kraft in 2007, has answered questions about distance time and time again – so much so that it figures into her strategy.
“I guess the first strategy is not thinking that you have to be a bomber to play well,” she said.
On the five-year anniversary of Pressel’s win, she guesses it will take a much lower score than her 3-under 285 to earn a jump into the pond. Pressel credits the high winning score in 2007 to especially gnarly rough. This year, she said, it’s especially low, which will put a premium on birdies.
“These greens are tough,” she said. “They’re not easy to read, and getting up-and-down around them is almost just as important as hitting it long off the tee.”
4.) Player to watch: She’s not on the list of conventional favorites just yet, but Caroline Hedwall certainly qualifies as a player to watch. Hedwall, who compiled a 2-1-1 record for the European team at the 2011 Solheim Cup, isn’t vocal or flashy. No, she’s just solid.
Already in 2012, the Swede has finished T-6 at the Founders Cup and T-5 at the Kia Classic. She owns one of the year’s lowest 18-hole round after shooting 7-under 65 in Round 2 of the Honda LPGA Thailand.
5.) It’s tradition: Kraft and amateurs go together like, well, Oreos and milk. A handful of coveted exemptions into the first LPGA major are extended to well-deserving amateurs each year.
This year’s crop includes just one college player in reigning NCAA champion Austin Ernst of LSU. Juniors make up the rest of the list as U.S.Girls’ Junior champion Ariya Jutanugarn returned after making the cut last year. Older sister Moriya will play too, as will Jaye Marie Green of Boca Raton, Fla., and English player Charley Hull.
The sixth amateur, Alison Lee, was all the rage Tuesday evening after playing her way into the field at the inaugural Legacy Junior Classic. She shot 4-under 68 on the neighboring Mission Hills Palmer Course for the final spot.