In debut, Chuasiriporn is among elite company

Md. golfer in Open group with LPGA legend Lopez

June 03, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WEST POINT, Miss. -- Nancy Lopez remembers the days when she was the LPGA's newest face and, in short time, its biggest star. Back then, playing against legends such as Mickey Wright and future Hall of Famers such as JoAnne Carner was a big deal to Lopez. It was a way to measure whether she had game.

Today, as Jenny Chuasiriporn makes her professional debut in the 54th U.S. Women's Open at the Old Waverly Golf Club, the 21-year-old from Timonium will gauge herself against Lopez in much the same manner. Chuasiriporn, who finished second to Se Ri Pak last year, and Lopez, a four-time runner-up, will be in the featured morning group.

"Of course I want to play well to just kind of prove to everyone that I am ready to play at this level," said Chuasiriporn, who graduated from Duke last month. "It says so much for the college golf and the junior golf I have been raised on. It is just neat to represent that group of people coming up and taking it to the next level."

Chuasiriporn is one of several young players who have made their breakthrough in major championships as amateurs or have recently found their first taste of pro success. That group includes Grace Park, 20, who beat Chuasiriporn in last year's U.S. Women's Amateur, and Kelli Kuehne, 22, a two-time Women's Amateur champion who won her first LPGA event last week in Corning, N.Y.

They are not the favorites to win this week. That distinction belongs to Karrie Webb, the 24-year-old Australian who has dominated the LPGA Tour with four victories this season and 13 titles in four years; and two-time Women's Open champion Annika Sorenstam, 28, of Sweden. Lopez, now 42 and physically wearing down after her 22-year, 48-win Hall of Fame career, will be the sentimental choice.

"You almost try and figure out: There's got to be some way to win the Open," said Lopez, who finished second by a shot to Alison Nicholas two years ago at Pumpkin Ridge. "You almost think there's a way to figure it out and there's not. I know there were years when I said the U.S. Open was a goal to win. Then I put too much pressure on myself. Then I went through a few years when I didn't care. I just need to play my best golf and have my best game ready."

It doesn't seem that will happen. Lopez said in an interview Tuesday that she has been told by doctors that she has arthritis in both knees. "They said I look like someone that's 60 years old," she said. Lopez will wear a brace on her left knee and should wear one on her right, but "I don't want to look ridiculous out there," she said.

The 6,433-yard, par-72 course probably won't make too many players look silly, as happened last year at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., where Pak and Chuasiriporn finished tied after 72 holes at 6-over par, matching the highest score at a Women's Open since 1983. Webb came in tied for 31st, 10 shots behind. Sorenstam was tied for 41st at 18-over par. Lopez shot rounds of 77 and 83 and was one of several prominent players not to make the cut.

"I won't say I had fun," said Webb, who is still looking for the first major championship of her career. "I definitely lost my patience with nine holes to play. The people that kept their patience were the ones who had a chance to win."

Said Chuasiriporn: "Blackwolf Run was definitely one of the hardest courses I've ever played. But this course, the fairways are a little bit wider, and there is a little bit more leeway. But it is still challenging. The grass is different and the scores are definitely going to be lower this year."

Yesterday's morning rains played havoc with practice rounds -- Chuasiriporn played only nine holes -- and a torrential downpour later in the day softened what were already inviting greens. It could turn the Open into an even bigger shootout, with the young players trying to find their place among the established stars.

"It's hard being young," said Kuehne, who as a rookie last year missed the cut in her first seven tournaments. "It's hard trying to establish yourself. A lot of players have struggled with it. I'm not the only one. I think it's important for the young players to come out and say, `Yes we can play' because we want the respect of our peers."

It's not that easy being one of the older players either. Just ask Lopez, who is trying to hang on and, after more than two decades, still trying to win the Open.

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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