Generation gap in full swing

LPGA youth movement sinks in, but veterans not ready to concede

June 08, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

The LPGA began the 2006 season promoting its youth, in particular a rookie class with glittering resumes and at least one second-year player, Paula Creamer, who had already proved she could compete with the best in the world. The veterans seemed to be an afterthought.

As the women's tour sets up shop at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace for the McDonald's LPGA Championship starting with the opening round today, a message has been sent by those who had won tournaments long before some of these fledglings had broken par.

They were not ready to relinquish the LPGA Tour - their tour - to a bunch of deftly marketed upstarts.

Practicing chip shots last week at a tournament outside Atlantic City, N.J., Helen Alfredsson summed up the feelings of her fellow thirty- and forty-somethings in describing this friendly but still fierce generational battle.

"The old hackers are not dead yet," Alfredsson, 41, said with a smile to another Swede, 22-year-old Karin Sjodin.

For those keeping score, the old guard has won four times so far: two wins by former No. 1 player Karrie Webb, including at this year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and one each by reigning No. 1 Annika Sorenstam and two-time LPGA champion Juli Inkster.

The LPGA's new blood has won six times: two victories by Lorena Ochoa, a 24-year-old from Mexico who is leading the tour in earnings; and one each by South Koreans Seon Hwa Lee (20), Joo Mi Kim (21), Sung Ah Yim (22) and Meena Lee (24).

The question this week is whether one of the young players such as Ochoa or 19-year old Paula Creamer will win her first major, or if 18-year-old rookie Morgan Pressel or even 16-year-old Michelle Wie will break through to win her first pro tournament.

"You can win a tournament at any age," said Webb, 31, who won her first event as a 20-year-old. "I won I don't know how many tournaments my first three years, but because none of them had been a major, that seemed to be the next question that was asked. It's just a progression of things."

The rookie class that was supposed to transform the LPGA has played well, but with the exception of Seon Hwa Lee, has yet to win. Along with Lee, five others are in the top 30, including 20-year-old Ai Miyazato of Japan (17th), Pressel (18th) and 19-year-old Julieta Granada of Paraguay (20th).

"It's wonderful for the tour, you've got so many great stories every week - the young players, the old players, the international players," said Pressel, who turned pro last December after winning the 2005 U.S. Amateur. "Every tournament is certainly up for grabs. Nothing is ever set in stone."

That Sorenstam, 35, is winless since mid-March has allowed others a chance. Webb won in a playoff over Ochoa at the Kraft Nabisco, then won last month in Williamsburg, Va. Inkster, 45, won her first tournament in three years outside Phoenix in March.

Though not conceding that her five-year reign as the best female player in the world is coming to an end, Sorenstam said that the attention being generated by Wie and the other young players is good for women's golf.

"I'm excited about the future for the LPGA," said Sorenstam, who will be trying to win her fourth straight LPGA Championship this week and 10th major overall. "It's very bright; they're very talented. They do have a lot to offer."

Yet some of the veterans believe that the tour's up-and-coming stars can give more of themselves, especially when it comes to their on-course persona. Veteran Rosie Jones said last week that many of these young players need to be "charismatized."

With the exception of the fiery Pressel, the players who fit into the tour's new marketing campaign of "These Girls Rock" have failed to demonstrate that they have more than just textbook swings and great fashion sense.

"I think personality never ceases to be boring," Alfredsson said. "It's like John Daly, it doesn't matter if he's having a good year or a bad year, he still is always very interesting. Sometimes I feel it gets too monotonous."

First-year LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens is aware of the criticism that has followed the women's tour since Sorenstam and Webb competed for the No. 1 ranking but did little in the way of bringing hype.

"People don't like to use the word in golf, but brand means everything," Bivens said in an interview last week. "Nobody's done it better than the NBA or NFL. You look at what the Williams sisters [in tennis] have done. It's not just those who are the very best in their sport, it is those who develop a following and become bigger than just their own game and their own technical abilities."

While Creamer, who won twice shortly after turning pro last year, seems cautious how she acts on the course and what she says off it, Pressel has been compared to former tour player Dottie Pepper in terms of showing her personality.

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