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Time For The LPGA To Give Thanks

November 24, 2009

Many called last week's rain-soaked, over-populated, weather-shortened LPGA Tour Championship emblematic of the toughest year in the organization's recent history, but in my opinion, Monday's third round offered some of the most exciting golf we've seen in ages. The Player of the Year race (between Lorena Ochoa and Jiyai Shin) came down to the final hole of the final tournament of the season (Ochoa ultimately bested Shin by one measly point), and the fearless rookie from Sweden (Anna Nordquist) fired off seven birdies in eight holes to come from behind and win her second trophy of the year. It was almost popcorn-worthy TV.Â

If there should be any symbolism gleaned from the Tour Championship, let's not make it the monsoon that hit Houston earlier in the week, but the riveting drama that played out on Monday. It reminded us just how much fun these girls can be to watch.

In fact, as the book closes on the 2009 LPGA season, there are still plenty of things for which the tour can be grateful. For example:

The fans are still there. Despite muddy grounds and rain delays, the crowds still lined the fairways at the Houstonian G&CC on Monday. That's right, on a Monday in November -- during Thanksgiving week, no less.Â

The rookies are sensational. Let's put it this way: Anna Nordquist never missed a cut and won twice this year -- one major (the LPGA Championship) and the Tour Championship -- and she still finished third in the Rookie of the Year race (behind Jiyai Shin and Michelle Wie). That bodes well for the future.

The world no. 1 is still on top and on track to break records. Lorena Ochoa may have gone nearly five months without a top-5 last spring and summer, but she pulled it out in the end and has regained her focus.

The new commissioner seems like a cool dude. Granted, most people look like rock stars next to ousted ex-commissioner Carolyn Bivens, but Michael Whan is 44 and has a resume of a successful marketing veteran twice his age. And Helen Alfredsson likes to hang with him, which means he must have some personality.Â

24 official tournaments are scheduled for 2010. That's about eight more than many of us had hoped for. Sure, purses are down, but the fans don't care about that. As long as the title sponsors are signing on, the tour stays alive.Â

The LPGA now has an exclusive television partner. Some of the broadcasts will still be on tape delay, but with an exclusive Golf Channel contract going into effect in '10, at least fans won't have to sift through the cable line-up to find the women's golf in the future. And rumor has it Judy Rankin will be in the booth for a lot of the broadcasts. Enthusiastic golf claps all around.

Westerners are beginning to embrace Jiyai Shin. The soft-spoken South Korean is undoubtedly going to be the player to beat in years to come (at age 21, she has 30 wins worldwide, including six on the LPGA Tour), and while some have lamented her decidedly un-glamorous image and broken English, American fans are starting to really care about this little girl with the sweet smile. She may have buckled under the pressure of knowing that her entire nation was watching with bated breath to see if she'd become the first player since 1978 to win both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year (she'd apparently been told that if she sealed the POY deal on Monday, the South Korean prime minister would be there to greet her plane when she returned home Tuesday -- no wonder she choked), but she won thousands of hearts with her gracious demeanor after her defeat. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house when she accepted her Rolex Rookie of the Year award at a banquet last Thursday night, saying "Some of us play for quiet, shy girls with little glasses who have a song in their hearts. To those girls I say, Don't be afraid. Dream big."  Words to live by for the LPGA.


--Stina Sternberg