PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The only thing that could have made the start of this LPGA season better is if more people had noticed. The first three tournaments included a six-way playoff won by 18-year-old Jessica Korda and a four-way extra-hole session captured by Angela Stanford, with a victory by the best player in women's golf, Yani Tseng, sandwiched in between. Now that's entertainment.
But those events were played in Australia, Thailand and Singapore, and that whole time zone thing meant fans in the United States found out what happened a day late and a dollar short on delayed tape or by rumor. Now the 62-year-old tour -- the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the world -- can kick it into high gear.
Korda imitates her dad, former tennis star Petr Korda, after winning.
Photo by Lucas Dawson/Getty Images
Beginning this week with the RR Donnelley Founders Cup on the Wildfire GC at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, the LPGA plays three weeks in a row, culminating with the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the year. And all three events, next week's Kia Classic included, will be live on Golf Channel.
The tour, which bounced back nicely under commissioner Mike Whan from an anemic 23-tournament schedule in 2011 to reach 27 this year (with another event expected to be added later in the year), could be on the verge of a breakout season attention-wise after swimming against the tide for several years. Safe to say, consumer confidence is on the rise.
In addition to losing tournaments during the Great Recession, the tour lost the best player in the world -- twice in barely more than a year as first Annika Sorenstam and then Lorena Ochoa retired. Michelle Wie has so far failed to be the American-born star the tour hoped for and Paula Creamer has not won since capturing the 2010 U.S. Women's Open, a streak of 32 starts.
But now the clouds are lifting. In the 23-year-old Tseng the LPGA has a legitimate star. She won seven LPGA events last year, five more times on other tours and already has five major championships and is only the U.S. Women's Open away from becoming the youngest ever -- male or female -- to complete the career Grand Slam.
Lexi Thompson, the latest can't-miss American, has already done something it took Wie six years to do -- win. Thompson, who turned 17 last month, became the youngest-ever LPGA winner last year at the Navistar LPGA Classic and proved that was no fluke when she won the Dubai Ladies Masters on the Ladies European Tour later in the year.
The victory by Korda to start this season is further affirmation that the LPGA has a new wave of talent coming along, the children of Title IX moms who supported their daughters' athletic efforts. This wave of physically skilled and finely conditioned athletes also can be attributed to Sorenstam and Tiger Woods, who both made the game not only more athletic, but also a sport the cool kids wanted to play.
With Tseng the clear No. 1 -- her 7.82-point lead over No. 2 Na Yeon Choi in the Rolex Rankings is greater than the lead Choi has over no. 134 Ashleigh Simon -- the question is who will challenge her. Suzann Pettersen and Cristie Kerr have to be in that mix, as does Creamer, who contends often even though her putter has kept her out of the winner's circle of late.
Wie graduates from Stanford this spring and some think with college behind her she will become more consistent. Thompson has to be taken seriously and players like defending Kraft Nabisco winner Stacy Lewis, past Kraft titleholder Brittany Lincome, former Ricoh Women's British Open champion Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato are all top-10 players.
And there could be no more appropriate event to kick off the American portion of the LPGA schedule than the Founders Cup. Last year this event was played without a purse, with the top-10 finishers getting money to give to their favorite charities. But the Donnelley people were thrilled with the success of the tournament and this year $1.5 million is up for grabs.
The inaugural Founders Cup was won by Karrie Webb, which was also fitting since she is a Hall-of-Fame player and one of the greatest ball-strikers in the history of women's golf. At 37, Webb has a lot of gas left in the tank and it would be no surprise to see her add to her total of seven LPGA majors this year.
This is a tournament that celebrates those 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. Louise Suggs, Marilynn Smith and Shirley Spork -- were part of that gang of 13 -- are back this year to remind the players of the humble beginnings from which the LPGA arose.
"I tell those ladies playing today that this tour is my baby, you better not screw it up," says Suggs with a chuckle. There was a time not that long ago when they was a concern -- and it was through no fault of the players. Now, that baby looks just fine and, finally, American fans are going to get to see this year's version of the longest running show in women's sports.-- Ron Sirak