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U.S. players must build on Solheim momentum


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POSTED: Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. » A roar went up and thousands of fans immediately headed to the next hole, a wave of red washing through the trees at Rich Harvest Farms.

It's a commonplace scene when Tiger Woods is playing. This rock star treatment, though, was for the women. From the practice rounds to the closing ceremony, fans — young and old, male and female, hardcore golfers and people who don't know a pitch from a putt — packed the Solheim Cup, and players delivered with one of the most riveting events in years.

It was the perfect advertisement for women's golf. The next question is, could it also be the remedy for the LPGA Tour, which has seemed more like a bad soap opera in recent months?

“;You want to know how this will help the LPGA? I just think if more people could come out and actually watch us play — I've been out here, as you guys know, a long time, and I've never seen the golf that these women play now,”; 49-year-old veteran Juli Inkster said Sunday night.

“;We have a great product, and the more people see that and write about it, it'll be great for us.”;

Like everything else, the economy has taken its toll on the LPGA Tour. There are 28 official money events this year, six fewer than last year. The Corning Classic was played for the last time this year, and McDonald's is dropping its sponsorship of the LPGA Championship.

Turning the sport around is now up to the players. And the tour is firmly in the hands of its youngsters.

Take the U.S. Solheim Cup team. Half of the players were 25 or younger. Michelle Wie, whose 3-0-1 record led the team, is all of 19. Paula Creamer, who contributed three points, is 23. Morgan Pressel, whose 3-and-2 victory over Anna Nordqvist sealed the win, is 21.

“;I said thank you to Beth Daniel, because if she hadn't picked Juli Inkster, I would have been the oldest on the team,”; joked Cristie Kerr, who is 31.

It's not just youth, though. The kids can play.

Brittany Lincicome, 23, won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the year's first major. Creamer has eight wins on the LPGA Tour. Pressel and Wie, of course, were in contention for a major before they got their driver's licenses.

The key, as always, is Wie.

She has drawn comparisons to Woods since she was in grade school, and had a deal with Nike as soon as she turned pro. Whether it's her skill and power or that she dared to tee it up against the guys, she captivates fans and has the potential to drive the game to new heights like Woods did with the PGA Tour.

But she has to win, and she has to show more of the personality that charmed fans at the Solheim Cup.

Her teammates had raved about her, promising that everyone would see an entirely different side of her. Sure enough, Wie was so animated that U.S. captain Beth Daniel worried at one point she was too excited. She screamed after big shots and played to the crowd.

By the end of the weekend, fans were greeting her with whimsical cheers of “;Wheeee!”;

“;These crowds were absolutely amazing, and to have 11 other team members as great as these people, it was just so fabulous,”; Wie said.

But it's another two years before the LPGA will have this kind of lovefest again. As the players went their respective ways yesterday, the challenge will be to maintain the enthusiasm of the Solheim Cup when they're opponents instead of teammates.