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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Young, and young at heart populate LPGA

Reader poll: Who will win this week's Fields Open LPGA tournament?

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

"There is so much talent now, so much money involved," veteran Patty Sheehan says of the LPGA Tour.

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FIELDS OPEN IN HAWAI'I

WHAT: LPGA tournament

WHEN: Tomorrow through Saturday

WHERE: Ko Olina Golf Club (Par 72, 6,496 yards)

FIRST/SECOND ROUNDS: Tomorrow and Friday, 7:15 a.m.

TICKETS: $10 daily; $25 pass (including pro-am). Parking free with shuttle

TV: The Golf Channel, 1:30 to 4 p.m. HST

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KAPOLEI As the LPGA heads into its second tournament of 2006 tomorrow's Fields Open in Hawai'i it finds itself at a strange intersection. Many of the tour's best players are half the age of many of its most memorable, who are still playing.

When Joo Mi Kim won the SBS Open at Turtle Bay last week, she and Jimin Kang played the first two rounds with LPGA Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan. Their combined ages did not equal that of Sheehan, who will be 50 in October and is halfway through her abbreviated LPGA season this weekend.

"I told them both I could be their mother," Sheehan recalled. "I don't think anybody had ever said that to them before because they weren't sure how to respond. They finally said they'd be honored to have me as their mother."

Sheehan calls it a "natural transition" and is "OK" with it, along with most of the others of her vintage who still do more than haunt the tour.

Juli Inkster, 45, is also playing at Ko Olina this week after finishing eighth at Turtle Bay. She was scheduled to do a junior clinic yesterday (washed out by rain) with Paula Creamer, 18, and Morgan Pressel, 17. Inkster's oldest daughter, Hayley, is 20 months younger than Pressel.

Sherrie Turner, 49, was on the leaderboard until the final day last week. She said she felt like the coach at a college tournament. She was not complaining.

"The young players have no fear," Turner said. "They don't know what it is. It's awesome to see. ... It says a lot for the tour, because everybody wants to be here and play the best tour in the world, and be with the best golfers."

That was basically true 25 years ago, when Sheehan, Turner, Inkster, Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Nancy Lopez were the "kids" and Kathy Whitworth, JoAnne Carner and Pat Bradley the ones fielding questions of a youth invasion. Only now golf is worldwide, with more than 100 international players on this tour, and the money is mind-blowing in relation to what was out there before.

Hawai'i's Michelle Wie, taking time off from Punahou School this week to play in her first LPGA event of the year, signed endorsement contracts worth up to $10 million annually when she turned pro in October. Sheehan has won 35 times, including six majors and the 1991 Orix Hawaiian Ladies Open at Ko Olina. She is 14th in career money with $5.5 million.

"There is so much talent now, so much money involved, so much interest in the game now," Sheehan said. "Far more than when we played. Now you've got Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer and the great American players of the future starting to fill our shoes, and you've got this international contingent that is so much more apparent than any time I can remember.

"Maybe it's just the fact that the opportunities are there for everybody now and the money is a huge draw. I'm not sure that it's necessarily for the love of the game. It's a business and it's a way for families to come out of places that they live. That was never even a thought when we came out as kids. I played because I loved the game and it was the next step ... there were no steps other than the LPGA."

Aside from Wie, who plans a future on both the women's and men's tours, the LPGA remains the last step. But, with the influx of gifted young players from all over the world, it is now a huge one.

LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens talks about "turning the buzz and conversation" surrounding her suddenly precocious tour into commercial success and "playing for purses that begin approaching those of the men." She compares her collision of old and young with the interest inspired by Tom Watson when he began challenging Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. She drools at the "demographics and psychographics" of a tour where Creamer can compete on equal terms with her role model Inkster.

Creamer and Pressel can't imagine a world any other way. As she heads out, Sheehan hopes they know how it evolved.

"We all sort of paved the way for kids now to make $10 million or whatever they're making," Sheehan said. "The nice thing would be for those kids to understand that and realize there are a lot of people who came before them and paved the way and made it great for them. There are a few out there that understand and appreciate it. There are a lot that don't."

NOTES

LPGA rookie Minea Blomqvist, from Finland, shot a 7-under-par 65 Monday to qualify for the tournament. She will play with Michelle Wie and Sakura Yokomine, who both received sponsor exemptions, in the first two rounds.

Natalie Tucker, who played on the Asian Tour last year, also got into the 132-player field with a 67 Monday. Hawai'i amateurs Mari Chun (74) and Ayaka Kaneko (77) failed to qualify.

Jennifer Rosales and Gloria Park withdrew, so alternates Catherine Cartwright and Yu Ping Lin are in the field. Rosales withdrew from last week's SBS Open where she was defending champion after injuring her finger. Park did not give a reason for her withdrawal.

This Fields' field is missing 14 of the top 50 players in the inaugural Women's World Ranking, announced Tuesday. Among the missing are Annika Sorenstam (1) and Japan's Yuri Fudoh (4) the only two from the first 15 who are not here. Rosales (24) and Gloria Park (30) are in the top 30.

The junior clinic scheduled for yesterday afternoon, with Juli Inkster, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel, was canceled because of rain. More than 300 students from Kawaihono, Nanakuli, Ma'ili, Nanaikopono and Honowai Elementary schools and Ilima Intermediate were being brought in for the clinic.

WIE STARTS IN MORNING

Michelle Wie is scheduled to tee off tomorrow morning and Friday afternoon in the first two rounds of the LPGA's Fields Open in Hawai'i.

The Punahou junior's tee time tomorrow is 7:48 a.m. off the first tee. Her Friday time is 1:13 p.m. off the 10th. The three-day event will be held at Ko Olina Golf Club.

Wie, 16, will be playing in her first competitive tournament since January's Sony Open in Hawai'i.

She will be paired with Japan's Sakura Yokomine and Finland's Minea Blomqvist.

Both days the group following Wie will include another teen pro 17-year-old Morgan Pressel. That group also includes Japan's Ai Miyazato.

Rookie of the Year Paula Creamer will be playing the opposite times as Wie. Creamer will start in the afternoon tomorrow and the morning Friday.

Reach Ann Miller at amiller@honoluluadvertiser.com.