KRAFT NABISCO CHAMPIONSHIP
Annika Sorenstam is not ready to give up her top spot just yet.
LPGA veterans primed for first major
They want to show they've still got what it takes to win in the Kraft Nabisco Championship
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. » Some day soon, youth may be served on the LPGA Tour; just don't expect it to happen this weekend at the first major event of 2006.
Annika Sorenstam is attempting to become the first woman to win the grand slam of golf in one season and she won't let a little thing like a youth movement stand in her way.
She is just one of many veterans teeing it up tomorrow at the Mission Hills Country Club who have had past success at the $1.8 million Kraft Nabisco Championship. Sorenstam has won this prestigious event three times in the 21st century, including last year.
Two of Julie Inkster's seven majors took place here in the 20th century, but judging by how well she played two weeks ago to win the Safeway International in Arizona, the 45-year-old isn't willing to sip buttermilk on her back porch just yet.
"That's all I play for, to win and compete," Inkster said. "I don't play for the money, I just play because I love the game of golf and I love working on my game. I love beating the younger players. I just like to see where I'm at with my game and just to let them know I'm still around.
"It's not just the younger players, it's the media and sponsors and everybody. I can still play and I still have the desire to play. I love the game. I think I have a passion for the game. And I think that's a lot of it.
"The course is in the best shape it's been in in a long time. I think it's going to be a good test."
Just who will pass it remains to be seen. Over the years, the veterans have dominated here, including victories by Betsy King (1997), Pat Hurst (1998), Dottie Pepper (1999) and Karrie Webb (2000), before Sorenstam took charge with her first win here in 2001.
But it doesn't take a student of the LPGA Tour to see all the fresh faces wandering up and down the fairways looking for golf balls. The center of attention isn't the women of the past, but the young guns of the future, including Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel and Ai Miyazato.
They are the ones who are attracting the crowds with their golf game between the ropes and their model approach off it.
"This tournament has some great memories," Pressel said. "I was in the lead after nine holes the second day last year. And I blew that, but that's another story. This is a great tournament. I played as an amateur on a sponsor's exemption and that was a real treat for me.
"I think (the youth movement) is a great thing for publicity and just promotion of the LPGA Tour, to have certain rivals. But just because I beat Michelle or just because I beat Paula, doesn't mean I'll win the tournament.
"This is a great field with a lot of golfers older than us capable of winning this event."
As good as the youth movement may be, it's the South Korean connection that has garnered a lot of the headlines of late. South Koreans Joo Mi Kim and Meena Lee won the first two events in Hawaii, before Sorenstam took charge at the inaugural MasterCard Classic in Mexico.
Even though Inkster won in Arizona, she had to make up a four-shot margin over South Korea's Sarah Lee on the last day to do it. Two of last year's major winners (Birdie Kim at the U.S. Open and Jeong Jang at the Women's British Open) hail from South Korea, giving women from that country a distinct advantage this week.
Christina Kim spent six weeks playing in Korea last winter to visit family and to see what golf was all about over there. She was impressed with what she saw.
"I went over there to train and try to lose a winter coat (her weight) I've been carrying around for the last 20 summers," Kim said. "There were a lot of reasons for me going. And part of it was to embrace the Korean culture a little bit more. I've always been proud of my heritage.
"A lot of people have put a lot of precedence on the fact that I'm damn proud to be an American, which I am, but I'm also proud of where I come from as well. I was trying to absorb all of that and just expand myself as a person. Winning a major would be a big step for me. I'm very excited to be here. I'm still a California girl through and through."
And don't forget about Wie. As well as the veterans have done here in the past, Wie still has managed two top 10s in three appearances. Her 14th-place finish here last year is her worst effort since playing here first as a 13-year-old. Wie likes nothing better than making a statement. Winning her first major as a professional qualifies for that.
"I feel so awesome to come back to this event," Wie said. "It's a very well-run event and the golf course is in absolutely perfect shape right now. I have many great memories here and I'm really happy to be back."