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Pressel poised for LPGA stardom

She was barely a teenager, but Morgan Pressel already had attitude to go with her game. Having become the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open at age 12, Pressel attracted plenty of attention at Pine Needles in North Carolina, where a couple of 76s and a missed cut did not diminish the experience.

Along the way, however, there was a bit of controversy, as Pressel upset one of her playing partners for a breach of golf course etiquette.

It seemed Pressel had been careless when walking on the greens, especially in the "through line," which is the area on the other side of the hole on a player's putting line. The player let Pressel know about it, and the media, too.

When the subject came up after her round, Pressel did what teenagers do, rolling her eyes and saying with disgust, "Whatever."

Five years later, the feistiness is still apparent, but so is a game good enough to compete on the LPGA Tour.

Pressel won't turn 18 until May, but she will begin her first full season as a member of the LPGA Tour today at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii. Meanwhile, she will continue her senior year at St. Andrews High in Boca Raton, taking some courses via e-mail.

Her decision to turn pro was made after a summer in which she nearly won the U.S. Women's Open, captured the U.S. Women's Amateur, had another top-five finish on the LPGA Tour and would have made more than $400,000 had she not been an amateur.

"Now she's a pro and the expectations are there, whether from her or other people," said Martin Hall, a teaching pro from West Palm Beach who has worked with Pressel since she was 9. "It's a little different now. She's not the little girl from South Florida. She's one of the players on the LPGA."

Pressel joins a growing list of young talent on the tour, including Paula Creamer, who was rookie of the year at age 19 in 2005 and won one of her two tournaments before her high school graduation. Japan's Ai Miyazato, Cristie Kerr, Christina Kim and Natalie Gulbis also are among a core group of players under 30 who are expected to have long and prosperous careers.

Much like Creamer, Pressel dominated at the junior and amateur levels. She won 11 times in her last two years playing the American Junior Golf Association circuit, and last fall she earned a third straight Florida high school title.

"I can see how much better she's gotten even since I played with her in juniors," Pressel said of Creamer. "She's really worked hard. Obviously, I can look at her and know that it's possible. But I'm still going to have to work really hard and still going to have to improve quite a bit."

Pressel's journey is in stark contrast to that of Michelle Wie, 16, who turned pro last fall with plenty of fanfare but a resume lacking in tournament titles. Wie is not an LPGA Tour member, so she will be restricted to the major championships for which she is eligible and six sponsor exemptions. She also is likely to play in more men's events.

"If you look at Morgan's career, it very much parallels that of Paula Creamer," said 17-time LPGA Tour winner Dottie Pepper, whose own fiery demeanor has been compared to Pressel's. "Paula was a three-time AJGA player of the year, Morgan was last year. They won at every level. I still firmly believe that's the way to do it."

Turning pro so early originally was not part of the plan for Pressel, who had designs on going to college and had committed to Duke.

But after having so much success last year, she figured there was no reason to wait. At first, the LPGA Tour held firm that she could not become a member until her 18th birthday. But after she advanced through the tour's qualifying tournament in December, commissioner Carolyn Bivens reconsidered and allowed Pressel to become a full member immediately. She is likely to play in five or six events before graduation.

"I think it's been more of a gradual thing as far as how good she can be," said Herb Krickstein, Pressel's grandfather. "You knew she was something, at age 12, to go through that, handling that kind of pressure at such a young age. You could see the mental reserves. You could see she had that. After that, her improvement has been progressive.

"If there was one point, it was probably after the (U.S. Women's) Open. It's been like maybe she's going to be a professional. Maybe a good professional. Then maybe a really, really good professional. Everything is how much she has improved. Now it is sort of sky is the limit. I think she has gotten very good. She has always progressed, never gone backwards. I would say the Open made me think she can be a professional, but at what level?"

Pressel has lived with her grandparents since the death of her mother, Kathy, in 2003 of breast cancer. She was just 43.

"It was a very difficult thing for a child to lose her mother at age 15," Krickstein said. "Not just in golf, but school, everything. She never moped, never felt sorry for herself. She just kept going.

"She was determined that she wasn't going to let it get her down, to keep moving forward. She wanted to honor her mother in that way, do the best she could. She knew that's what her mother wanted for her."

Pressel has a sister, Madison, 14, and a brother, Mitchell, 12, both of whom are aspiring golfers. They live with their father, Mike, whose relationship with his daughter and father-in-law would best be described as strained. It is a subject that is rarely broached.

But Krickstein took an interest in his granddaughter's career nearly a decade ago, then started taking her to see Hall at Ibis Golf & Country Club. Since then he has been there for nearly all of her practice sessions and tournaments.

"The thing I could see right away was she could hit the ball," Hall said. "Even when she was 9, she never had much trouble hitting the ball in the middle of the club face. She didn't hit it straight and she didn't hit it far, but she could hit it in the middle of the club. And that's genetics, isn't it? That's a good athlete, good genes. She could smack it in the middle almost every time and that's a tremendous starting point.

"To get where she is, you need athletic ability. A teacher can't put that in you. You can't put in what God left out. She had that part for sure."

Now Pressel will learn if she has the other parts to make her a successful pro.