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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2005

American uprising: U.S. players starting to climb back to the top

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Cristie Kerr celebrates winning the LPGA State Farm Classic last September in Springfield, Ill. Cristie Kerr celebrates winning the LPGA State Farm Classic last September in Springfield, Ill.
SETH PERLMAN / AP Enlarge

The No. 1 women s golfer in the world is from Sweden. We know that not because of the women s world rankings officially, there are none but because Annika Sorenstam wins just about every time she puts a tee in the ground.

On those rare occasions since the mid-1990s when Sorenstam s dominance was in doubt, the talk turned to either an Australian, Karrie Webb, or the leader of a rapidly growing Korean contingent, four-time Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic champion Se Ri Pak.

Before that, you had to factor in an Englishwoman, Laura Davies.

Notice anything missing? Like an American?

Not since Betsy King in 1993 has a U.S. golfer led the LPGA money list. Not since Beth Daniel in 94 has a Yank been the tour s player of the year or won the Vare Trophy for lowest stroke average.

The LPGA has long been pro golf s only true world tour but over the last decade, as more and more talented foreigners have set up shop in this country, Americans have been overwhelmed, to some degree, in their own backyard.

But that may soon change. The U.S. may be poised to grab back its own tour with a promising core of stars ranging from 27-year-old Cristie Kerr to the Chosen One, as Kerr refers to 15-year-old amateur Michelle Wie.

You know that if Annika is on top of her game that she s going to be in contention come Sunday, but I have to tell you there are a lot of players out here now that can hang with her, said Kerr, who is currently second on the tour s money list with more than $900,000 and is considered by most to be the No. 1 American player today. We re not seeing all those players breaking through and winning yet, but we re very close. It s great for women s golf to see that.

There are a lot of great young Americans, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis and others. I am really proud of them. It s good to see the resurgence of American women s golf again back on tour.

Perhaps that resurgence will continue this week in the Farr Classic.

Defending champion Meg Mallon, who last summer became the first American in seven years to win at Highland Meadows, returns and will be joined in the field by young-gun professionals Kerr, Creamer and Gulbis.

Brittany Lang and Morgan Pressel, the two amateurs who tied for second in the recent U.S. Women s Open, will also play at the Farr as sponsor exemptions. Lang will make her professional debut while Pressel presses on as an amateur.

Kerr has won five titles since the start of the 2002 season, more than any other American. Creamer, who like Kerr skipped college to go right to the pro tour, won six weeks ago as a rookie and actually expressed some disappointment that it took her all of nine pro starts [and 19 LPGA tournaments in all, including those in which she competed as an amateur] before she broke through.

It came fast in a way, I guess, but I expected to win sooner, Creamer said. I ve had many more chances, I feel, that I just didn t take advantage of.

Paula Creamer's decision to skip college and go directly to the LPGA Tour paid big dividends when the rookie won the Sybase Classic in just her ninth pro start. Paula Creamer's decision to skip college and go directly to the LPGA Tour paid big dividends when the rookie won the Sybase Classic in just her ninth pro start.
DON HEUPEL / AP Enlarge

I d like to be known as the next great American. I m trying to be the best player in the world.

Creamer won the Sybase Classic in New York on May 22, graduated from high school the next week, then returned to action a week later at the ShopRite LPGA Classic at Seaview Resort in New Jersey.

She told reporters there that she was not playing in an early-week pro-am event and might instead hop over to Atlantic City for the day.

Writers were quick to remind her that she s only 18 and wasn t old enough to gamble.

That s nothing. Wie can t get her driver s license until October.

So some of this talented young crop of stars is really young.

Gulbis is just 22, but seems to have been around for years and, in fact, is in her fourth full season on the LPGA Tour. She became the youngest player to qualify for a tour event in 1997 at the age of 14, a record that stood until Wie did the same thing in 2002 at the age of 12.

Natalie Gulbis has been best known for fashion shoots and calendars but her golf game is quickly catching up. Natalie Gulbis has been best known for fashion shoots and calendars but her golf game is quickly catching up.
DON HEUPEL / AP Enlarge

Gulbis, who left the University of Arizona after just one year, has yet to win, but has gotten consistently better, contends regularly and moved into the top five on the 2005 money list with earnings of nearly $700,000 after a tie for fourth at the Women s Open.

I had a pretty successful time in college, Gulbis said. I won four times. You get used to it. I came out here and I absolutely expected I would win my first year. But I haven t been consistent enough. I ve had good rounds and been in the hunt, but I haven t put together four good rounds.

Gulbis, as well known for her fashion/swimsuit calendars as her golf to this point, has recently been working with Butch Harmon, her first instructor other than her father, to simplify what she admits is an unorthodox swing.

I ve spent a lot of time cleaning up my game, trying to simplify my swing, to make it shorter and repeat it, and to improve my focus and concentration, Gulbis said. Annika is still a better player, but I think I m getting closer with my game. I think everybody wants to get to the point they can beat her.

Kerr s fifth tour win earlier this year at the Michelob Ultra Open was an especially big moment for her because it marked her first triumph at a tournament that included Sorenstam in the field. In fact, it snapped Annika s string of five straight victories.

Honestly, if you look at what Tiger did and what she s done, I think she s been a little bit more dominant through the years than maybe even Tiger, Kerr said of Sorenstam. I mean, Tiger is amazing and, on the men s tour, he was very dominant for a long time. But to win seven, eight, nine tournaments a year is pretty incredible. I don t think we re going to see another player like her for another 50, 100 years.

[For me] to beat her out to be No. 1 in the world is going to take quite a lot. If I m going to be No. 1, whether it s next year or five years or 10 years from now, well, if it s meant to happen then it s meant to happen.

I have just got to keep doing the things that make me perform at my peak level. I feel like I am definitely one of the players carrying the banner.

For many years, American players didn t have to worry about who was carrying the banner. It was always one of them, regardless of era.

Michelle Wie, left, and Morgan Pressel are the biggest names in women's amateur golf. Michelle Wie, left, and Morgan Pressel are the biggest names in women's amateur golf.
CHRIS CARLSON / AP Enlarge

  • Babe Zaharias and other legendary founders like Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls and, soon after, the greatest of them all, Mickey Wright, barnstormed the countryside, playing for a pittance to plant the seeds of women s pro golf.

  • Kathy Whitworth won more titles than any LPGA player competing against the likes of Carol Mann, JoAnne Carner and Donna Caponi from the 1960s until well into the 80s.

  • Pat Bradley s and Amy Alcott s dominance in themid-1970s soon became the Nancy Lopez Era that grew to include Patty Sheehan, Daniel and King.

    From the tour s start in the early 50s through 1994, only once did an international player Japan s Ayako Okamoto in 1987 lead the tour in earnings or capture one of the LPGA s top awards.

    The current American veterans on the tour Mallon, Daniel, Juli Inkster and Rosie Jones, to name a few have combined for 94 victories and 12 major championships. Two of them, Daniel and Inkster, are already LPGA Hall of Famers and Mallon could well achieve the same before all is said and done.

    But they have had to deal with the foreign invasion during the latter stages of their careers and have taken a back seat to one international player or another for more than a decade.

    Potential U.S. standouts come and go, it seems. There are plenty of players like two-time Farr winner Kelly Robbins, Sherri Steinhauer and Michelle McGann who have accomplished much yet failed to grab any considerable star power.

    The foreign talent isn t going away. Korean-born Grace Park won the Vare Trophy last year with a 69.99 stroke average and has won six times since 2000. Jennifer Rosales is an exciting young player from the Philippines. Korea s Birdie Kim just broke through with her U.S. Open victory. And Mexico s Lorena Ochoa may be the best of the lot. She was the tour s rookie of the year in 2003 and has won three times since the start of the 04 season.

    Still, there is reason to believe the rising U.S. stars may eventually achieve some level of dominance.

    In addition to Kerr, Creamer and Gulbis, current LPGA players Dorothy Delasin four wins since 2000, but none since 03 Laura Diaz, the improving Angela Stanford, and colorful Californian Christina Kim might have their best golf ahead of them. Diaz, 30, won twice in 2002 but has been only a sporadic top-10 finisher since. Kim won her first title last summer at age 20 and recently became the youngest LPGA player ever to reach $1 million in career earnings.

    Then there is the current amateur crop that includes teenager Pressel, who stole the spotlight from Wie in the final round of the Open and seemed poised to win before Birdie Kim stunned everyone by holing out from a greenside bunker for the only birdie of the day on No. 18 at Cherry Hills near Denver.

    Wie is considered the brightest star among young American golfers, although the 15-year-old amateur s track to the top has been criticized by some experts who feel she would be better served to not play in so many professional events.

    While the feeling is she would learn better how to finish tournaments and win were she to play more often on the amateur level, there is no question that competing against the best players in the world on difficult courses has helped hone her considerable skills.

    She has been great for our tour, Kerr said. She is the chosen one who people want to turn on the TV to watch, and that s good for the rest of us. Whether her career pans out like everybody thinks it will, only time will tell. But I think she s been great for us.

    It s really not a normal situation, you know, that somebody that young would be that good and in a sense tournament tested. People are always looking for something new and fresh and she s it right now. I just hope she wants to play on our tour because we really need her and she can bring in so many new fans and sponsors.

    Wie s future is anybody s guess due to her stated goal of playing in the Masters and on the PGA Tour. Because of her gender she says it would be good to play on both tours but, hopefully, down the road I will get a chance to play on the PGA Tour.

    I realize I am not at the stage where I can win a PGA Tour event, where I feel like I am better than any of those guys out there. But the Masters is my ultimate goal and ultimately I d like to play on the PGA Tour.

    I realize that everyone is not going to support what I do and I m fine with that. One characteristic that I have is I don t really care what anyone says. I don t really listen to anyone. I believe really strongly in what I can do. I am not really afraid of anything.

    Sounds like the fearless, charismatic player to lead American women s golf into the next era. Time will tell if she, or some other talented candidates, fills the role.

    ASAP Sports transcripts of on-site tournament interviews contributed to this story.

    Contact Dave Hackenberg at:dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398



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