The LPGA's heralded rookie class finally gets to tee off today in the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii. Though this group is potentially the most talented the tour has seen, most eyes will be on a familiar face, Michelle Wie. It seems as if Wie has been around forever. She was a 14-year-old amateur when she played in the PGA's Sony Open and became the first woman to shoot in the 60s at a PGA Tour event. Wie missed the cut by one shot. She continued to try to make a cut on the PGA Tour — she didn't — and by the time she turned pro at 16, Wie had nearly $12 million in endorsements. She lived up to the hype by holding the lead on the final day of three LPGA majors, only to let them slip away.
Then things went south. At the end of 2006, she played 14 competitive rounds and failed to break par. A wrist injury in 2007 forced her to play through pain, and she was a combined 109 over par in eight LPGA tournaments. Last year she was disqualified from the State Farm Classic for not signing her scorecard when she was a shot off the lead.
Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford, Wie is officially an LPGA professional after finishing sixth at qualifying school. She is keeping a low profile.
"It feels like a clean slate, a new beginning. I finally feel like I really earned it," Wie said in a statement.
Turtle Bay is her home course. She attended the Punahou School in Honolulu (President Obama is an alumnus) and grew up on the course.
At 15 she played the inaugural SBS in 2005 and finished tied for second, two strokes behind Jennifer Rosales. Wie was the only amateur in the field and the only player to shoot under par for three rounds in difficult conditions.
The LPGA certainly wouldn't mind Wie having success and grabbing headlines this season. The tour is without superstar Annika Sorenstam, who retired, and it is going through tough times with fewer events and prize money.
Wie will certainly be the focus this week, but by the time the season is over, other rookies may have done better.
Four of the 21 rookies who will make things tougher for the veterans
1. Ji-Yai Shin (South Korea): A tremendous player on the Korean LPGA Tour, Shin, 20, has been a pro since 2005. Last year she won the British Open, the Mizuno Classic and the ADT Championship. She has seven Korean tour victories in 15 starts. With her resume, it's easy to see why she is a front-runner for rookie of the year.
2. Stacy Lewis (United States): She was impressive at Arkansas, where she won 12 events and was a four-time All-American. She was the medalist at the 2008 LPGA Qualifying School and played in eight LPGA events. Her best finish was a tie for third at the U.S. Open. Lewis, who lives in Woodlands, Texas, turns 24 on Monday.
3. Vicky Hurst (United States): The 18-year-old from Melbourne had a record-breaking year on the Futures Tour. She won five times and earned a record $93,107 in 2008. She was a two-time Florida Junior Tour player of the year. In 2007 she was ranked the country's top junior and was the American Junior Golf Association's player of the year.
4. Mindy Kim (United States): She has some serious playing to do to keep up with the other rookies, let alone the veterans. Kim, 19, won three times on the Futures Tour last year and had eight other top-10 finishes. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she has been based in California since 2007.
Five veterans to watch
1. Lorena Ochoa: Still the queen of the mountain.
2. Paula Creamer: At 22, an established vet.
3. Juli Inkster: The 48-year-old keeps on grinding.
4. Se Ri Pak: The 31-year-old South Korean paved the way for Asians on the tour.
5. Helen Alfredsson: The 43-year-old Swede finished fifth on the money list in 2008.
Local profile | Brittany Lincicome
Home course: St. Petersburg Country Club
2008: Best finish was a tie for seventh. Had earnings of $114,963 to rank 92nd on the money list.
Career: Has earnings of $1,966,812 and has won twice. This is her fifth year on tour.
Quotable: "You can only go forward from here. I feel like I'm such a good athlete that I should be able to play better than that.'' Lincicome on her disappointing 2008 season
The LPGA is the first major golf tour to feel the impact of a bad economy. It has 31 tournaments this season, down from 34 in 2008. The total purse money is down more than $5 million from last year. The season-ending ADT Championship in West Palm Beach is gone, as is the Fields Open in Hawaii, the Ginn Tribute and the SemGroup Championship. The tour has even eliminated its media guide, putting all content online. "It's no secret that the road ahead, particularly 2009, is going to test our mettle," commissioner Carolyn Bivens said.
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8810.