Stacy Lewis takes a three shot lead into weekend of Kraft Nabisco golf tournament

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Stacy Lewis

Stacy Lewis

In the three years since Stacy Lewis lost a third-round lead at the U.S. Women’s Open in her first pro tournament, she traveled the globe, opened her mind and thoroughly revamped her game.

A few bad iron shots and a little desert heat just aren’t such challenges any more.

Lewis persevered through more triple-digit temperatures to shoot a 3-under 69 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship on Friday, opening a three-stroke lead over Yani Tseng, Brittany Lincicome and Jane Park.

Michelle Wie shot a 67, matching the day’s best round and closing within six shots in contention for her first major title. Tseng, the defending champion and the world’s top-ranked player, shot a 68, while first-round co-leader Lincicome mustered a 72 to stay one stroke ahead of Morgan Pressel and Amy Yang.

The leaders all managed to thrive on dry, speedy greens during a second windless day at Mission Hills, with the temperature topping 100 degrees by midday.

But Lewis pulled ahead at 9-under par after several big putts during the second round, smoothly reaching the halfway point of the LPGA Tour’s first major in strong position to chase her first victory during what’s expected to be a cooler weekend.

“My round was all over the place,” said Lewis, who shared the first-round lead. “But I made some really good up-and-downs and stayed really patient on the back nine, and I was fortunate to get away with a couple of pars that I probably shouldn’t have.”

Big things were expected from Lewis after she burst onto the tour with a third-place finish behind Inbee Park at Interlachen in 2008, nearly becoming the first player to win a major in her professional debut.

Although she’s now a solid pro, finishing 21st on last season’s money list, she hasn’t won. She’s still enduring the maturation of any player coming out of college — finding a swing guru, figuring out the hectic travel schedule and mentally managing through weeks away from home, sometimes on the opposite side of the globe from her home in Texas.

“I just feel like I have a really good group of people around me now,” Lewis said.

That group sometimes includes Lincicome, her road roommate and good friend. It also includes Betsy King, who accompanied Lewis on a trip to Africa with Lewis’ mother.

Her experience in Rwanda, meeting families in a daily struggle for water and survival, affected her just as much as her ongoing charity work with dozens of young people with scoliosis, the same spinal affliction she overcame.

“I saw things (in Rwanda) I never thought I’d see in my life,” Lewis said. “It was such a shock to me that people live the way that they do, but they are so happy and so grateful. It just makes me grateful for everything that I have, and it gave me a renewed purpose of what I’m doing out here. The better I play golf, the more I can help other people, the more I can inspire other people.”

Lewis had to be resourceful from the opening holes Friday. She made tough putts on three straight holes before putting her tee shot on the nine behind a tree. She saved herself with a 200-yard hybrid shot and an up-and-down par before finishing strong with a bogey-free back nine.

Lewis and Wie memorably went to the same LPGA Q-school in December 2008. While Wie’s presence got all the headlines, Lewis had the five-round event’s best score.

Wie was 2 over in Thursday’s first round, but she rallied impressively Friday morning after a horrible start.

Her first tee shot flew into the gallery and beaned a little girl, who needed attention from paramedics. Wie couldn’t stick around to see how she was doing.

“I never felt so horrible about a shot ever,” said Wie, who has drilled a few spectators in her day with a sometimes-erratic approach from the tee. “I felt so horrible about hitting that poor little girl. … I thought I had hit a sprinkler or a tree or something. The little girl was the last thing on my mind, but hopefully she’s OK.”

Park played her way into the Kraft Nabisco field with a top-30 finish at last week’s Kia Classic. The Los Angeles-area native, who missed the 2009 season with a back injury, excelled on the dry, fast greens of Mission Hills, which she first played when she was 16.

“The first time I played here, the golf course is just so visually intimidating,” Park said. “Now, it still looks intimidating, but I’m not really afraid of the golf course, which is what was running through my mind as a kid.”

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Solheim Cup Team Captain wraps up the year in review

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RosieJones

Rosie Jones

Being Captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup Team has proven to be very exciting this year as I made my final visit to the season ending LPGA Tour Championship in Orlando last week. Lots to catch up with the players and staff since this will be the last tournament of the year and players will be in off season mode for the next several weeks as they all enjoy the Holiday Season and then gear up for year 2011.

This was a good event for me to attend since all the top U.S. players were there looking to better their position in many category’s on the treacherous Grand Cypress layout just outside of Disney World. The weather turned to cool with windy conditions making the course very hard to score on with drastic greens proving hard to master. I have to brag a bit about how well our American players played, but the big congrats to Sweden’s Maria Hjorth for her great play to capture the title.

Player of the Year

It was fun to watch the top 5 players on tour battle it out those past weeks for Play of the Year award and Vare Trophy as the results all came down to the final round and to whether Cristie Kerr could pull off a win to capture both honors. After watching the top honor trade like baseball cards the past 3 months, the final congrats go to Yani Tseng. I guess we’ll have to wait another year to see if the POY award will come home to an American player as C. Kerr just missed out with a brave attempt finishing Tied for 3rd place finish.

Solheim Points

Lots of good golf and plenty of points being made, but not a lot of movement on the 2011 Solheim Cup point standings these past couple of weeks as the tour ends it’s year long plus qualifying. Cristie Kerr leads the American squad with 441 points with Morgan Pressel in second place at 239 and Michelle Wie in third at 223. Team USA has got a good strong line up of experienced players in the top 10 with a good mix of young players looking for their first experience of Solheim Competition and Veterans’ holding their own within the top 15 spots.

Even though I have been watching the points pretty closely these past several months, this is when the players themselves start to keep a keen eye on what is going on as well. I expect next year will be quite the shoot out as points are worth 1 ½ times during Solheim Cup year. Example: a Win is 60 points, double for Majors. This will favor hot play in 2011, and give a player the ability to make a pretty good move up the roster.

Captain RoJo Wins

One of the great things about being Captain is that even though it sometimes feels like a full time job, it still allows me the opportunity to be competitive on the Legends Tour (Official Senior Tour of the LPGA). Last month I teed it up with some great former players of the LPGA including past Captains Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley and current players on the LPGA tour like Michelle Redman and Lori Kane at the Legends Tour Championship on the Island Course at Innisbrook FL.

With a two day total of -9, I was hoisting the trophy for my first Major Win and my fourth title in 4 years as a senior player on the tour. It was a fun week and a good experience for me as all those competitive juices come back to me and keep me on my toes and in touch with what my Solheim Players are going through week in and week out.

Happy Holidays!

As the Holiday Season is in full swing this is the time players wind down from the busy Tour Life and the crazy travel schedule that can take its toll over the entire year. It’s a good time to relax and enjoy their life at home, revitalize the body, rest and balance out their time for family and friends. It won’t be long before the sticks come back out of the trunk and the grind starts back up with new goals and expectations.

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Maria Hjorth wins LPGA Tour Championship in rare fashion

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MariaHjorth

Maria Hjorth wins LPGA Tour Championship

So much for a frantic finish at the LPGA Tour Championship. Only one person moved up the ranks this week to take home a trophy.

That was just fine for Maria Hjorth.

With every major award in play for the first time in a decade, all it took was a final-round 72 for Hjorth to claim a one-shot victory over Amy Yang and hold off a huge field that struggled to even make par. None of the annual honors, including player of the year and the No. 1 ranking, changed hands in the season finale.

“It was obvious other players had way more pressure on them,” Hjorth said. “So I think in that regard, it might have been a little easier on me.”

Sure seemed that way.

Hjorth had three birdies and three bogeys on a picture-perfect day at Grand Cypress Golf Club, where only six of 120 players finished below par for the tournament. Yang, who led after each of the first three rounds, had a quadruple bogey on her third hole but rallied with a 74 to supply the only drama all week.

“I just thought, ‘Nothing more I can lose,’” Yang said.

She made a birdie putt on the 18th from about 15 feet over a ridge, forcing Hjorth to sink an 8-foot putt slightly down hill to save par. She did. Then Hjorth dropped her putter, lifted her arms in triumph and burst into tears as she went running to the ropes to grab her 1-year-old daughter, Emily.

“Every win is emotional for me,” said Hjorth, who earned her fourth victory on tour but first since becoming a mother. “But being a mother and coming back after giving birth is definitely something that I’ve been hoping for.

“It’s nice to prove that it’s possible.”

Hjorth finished at 5-under 283 for the tournament, the highest-winning score relative to par all year except for Paula Creamer’s 3-under victory in the U.S. Open at Oakmont. The firm and fluctuating greens at Grand Cypress played similar to the toughest major this week, and near-freezing conditions in the first two rounds only heightened the challenges.

That was just fine for those sitting at the top.

With Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam now retired, every major award was in play for the first time in a decade but the week still ended with a thud. Each player who began the tournament on top of the award standings stayed there:

–Yani Tseng became the first player from Taiwan to win LPGA player of the year.

–South Korea’s Na Yeon Choi won this year’s money title.

–Choi also claimed the Vare Trophy for the year’s lowest scoring average.

–Fellow South Korean Jiyai Shin, who missed the 54-hole cut and was the only one who could unseat Choi on the money list, will keep her spot atop the world ranking. She finished 12 over.

Cristie Kerr also was within striking distance to become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to claim LPGA player of the year. But her final-round 73 left her at 2 under for the tournament, tied for third place.

“Maybe I put a little too much pressure on myself,” Kerr said.

The final round would have only one shining star.

Hjorth was calm and cool on greens that frustrated so many in the field. She made huge putts to save par over and over, including a 10-footer on the 16th hole that gave her a two-shot cushion that proved big on the 18th.

And that was all she needed for her first LPGA victory since 2007.

“It was really amazing,” she said. “I’m just overwhelmed right now.”

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Will she be the first American in 16 years to win LPGA Tour Player of the Year?

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CristieKerrLPGATourChampionship

Cristie Kerr LPGA Tour Championship

Cristie Kerr was a high school teenager the last time an American woman accomplished what she has a chance to do Sunday.

Kerr is making a move to become the first American in 16 years to win LPGA Tour player of the year, trailing leader Amy Yang by three strokes entering the final round of the LPGA Tour Championship.

“Everybody can imagine how much it would mean to me and for American golf,” Kerr said.

Kerr shot a 1-under 71 for the third straight round Saturday to put her in a tight pack at Grand Cypress Golf Club where anybody under par is in contention. She was the only one to shoot below par in all three rounds.

Kerr, 33, needs nothing short of victory to unseat points leader Yani Tseng. All that might take is another solid round of golf to become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to claim the LPGA’s most prestigious annual award.

“We also do need an American to win awards like player of the year and really start to bring the LPGA Tour back to the United States,” Kerr said.

There’s not many in her way.

Yang (73) has led all three rounds, Maria Hjorth (71) was one shot back of Yang and Seon Hwa Lee (73) was also tied with Kerr. Only five players were under par for the tournament.

“If you are under par, I still think there’s a chance,” Hjorth said.

This year’s season finale isn’t following the usual script.

For the first time in a decade, the player of the year award will be someone other than Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam now that both are retired. And since Ochoa bid farewell to the tour in May, the No. 1 ranking has shuffled nine times among three players — Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato and Kerr.

Five in the field had a chance to grab the honors — plus the Vare Trophy for the year’s lowest scoring average — when the tournament began, and now Kerr is in prime position to take them all. Anything under par might be good enough again for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open champion.

But only a victory would give Kerr enough to take player of the year honors from Tseng, who made the 54-hole cut on the number after shooting a 2-over 74 in the third round. Tseng is at 6 over for the tournament and doesn’t sound too confident of earning the award.

“I think Cristie is gonna be winning the tournament to take this title,” Tseng said.

That’s because the American has been by far the most consistent in the field. She had three birdies but only two bogeys Saturday on a course where cold conditions and have made firm and fluctuating greens even faster.

Although after near-freezing temperatures the first two days, a picturesque day in the mid-60s made conditions ripe for low scores.

But it didn’t happen.

Kerr saved par all day with big putts, including one from about 12 feet on the 17th hole to stay on the heels of the leaders. The tournament also had an additional cut after 54 holes to 34 players — the lowest 30 scores and ties — that gives Kerr and others near the top of the leaderboard an even better chance of holding off any major final-day pushes.

It also puts Kerr only 18 holes away from a monumental victory for American golf.

“I have to put the awards and all of those different things away and I just have to win (Sunday),” she said. “I have to win the day.”

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Will the temperature get the best of LPGA Tour Championship players?

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AmyYangLPGATourChampionship

Amy Yang LPGA Tour Championship

About the only thing going low at the LPGA Tour Championship is the temperature.

Well, that and Amy Yang’s scorecard.

Yang shot a 3-under 69 in a safe and solid second round Friday, good enough to hold a three-shot lead when play was called for darkness. Only 10 of the 120 players in the field were under par.

“It is very surprising,” said Yang, who is going for her first LPGA Tour victory and has never led a round until this week.

Not that she’s complaining.

The lack of low scores in a bloated field that features the top players on tour made her score stick all day. Maria Hjorth (68) and Seon Hwa Lee (73) were three shots back, and world No. 1 Jiyai Shin (75) is projected to make the cut on the number to keep her chances of holding the ranking at season’s end alive.

The near-freezing conditions and a competitive course has tested players more than they could’ve imagined. And Yang has handled the challenge better them anyone.

The South Korean overcame a slow second-round start to finish with four birdies on the back nine, including a sizzling putt from about 20 feet on the 18th hole. She also did it with a tougher morning tee time, around 8:30 a.m., before things warmed up.

The temperature dipped into the upper 30s at dawn at Grand Cypress Golf Club to make firm and fluctuating greens even faster. The breeze ticked down a touch for the second round, but the topsy-turvy greens — which Laura Davies called “mental” a day earlier — were causing the most challenges.

“You really have to be patient out here, because you’re going to have some bad breaks,” Hjorth said.

The course has wreaked havoc even on the top players.

The LPGA’s player of the year award is wide open at the season-ending event for the first time in a decade, now that Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam are retired. Five in the field have a chance to grab the honor, and the top ranking is also in play.

Shin and Na Yeon Choi would be the first Korean to win the LPGA’s top honor. Cristie Kerr could become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to claim the award, Yani Tseng would be the first from Taiwan, and Ai Miyazato of Japan is also in contention.

Kerr (71) is five shots back, Choi (71) is seven off the lead, Tseng (73) is 11 back and Miyazato (71) is 14 off the pace. In other words, parody rules again at the top.

“I think it’s more interesting having more people up there,” Kerr said. “I would like to be the dominant Alpha female, but you have to work really hard for that.”

They don’t have much time left to make up ground.

The LPGA Tour Championship will cut to the lowest 70 scores and ties when the second round officially finishes early Saturday morning. And there will be an additional cut after 54 holes to the lowest 30 players and ties, making the margin for error even slimmer.

It also makes Yang’s grip on the lead feel even tighter.

Her last victory of any kind came in 2006, when she won the Australian Ladies Masters at only 16 years old. That made her the youngest amateur ever to win on the Ladies European Tour, and it seemed there would be more victories in her future.

Only they haven’t come.

“I was too young to know what winning a tournament meant,” she said. “After that, I had to finish high school. So there was a gap of time between that.”

Maybe not much longer.

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Two South Koreans atop the LPGA Tour Championship leaderboard

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amyyang

Amy Yang

Two South Koreans atop the leaderboard at the LPGA Tour Championship came as no surprise. They just weren’t the two everybody expected.

Stealing the spotlight from two others vying for a historic player of the year honor, Amy Yang and Seon Hwa Lee each shot a 5-under 67 on Thursday to share the clubhouse lead when the opening round was called for darkness.

No pressure on them.

“This week is good,” Hwa Lee said, smiling.

The bigger challenge falls on their two more acclaimed countrywomen.

Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi are in contention to become the first South Korean to take home the LPGA’s player of the year award, a huge honor in a golf-crazed country that sent swarms of media to cover them this week. But Shin (77) and Choi (73) each got off to a disappointing start, leaving them well off the pace.

Julieta Granada finished two shots off the lead on a chilly day at Grand Cypress Golf Club that had many players wearing earmuffs and winter hats with temperatures dipping into the low 40s just before dawn. There were four players three shots off the pace.

“I just tried to make par every hole because the fairways, the rough are longer and thicker, and the greens are fast and slope a lot,” Yang said. “I just tried to play safely.”

This year’s season-ending event doesn’t have the usual script.

For the first time in a decade, Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam won’t win player of the year now that they’re retired. That leaves five in the field with an opportunity to take home the tour’s top honor and — along with Suzann Pettersen — perhaps the No. 1 world ranking.

So far, none of them has seized the moment.

American Cristie Kerr (71), Yani Tseng (75) of Taiwan and Ai Miyazato (80) of Japan — the only others who could win the player of the year award — all struggled in the conditions. Choi was 4 under through 12 holes, but she gave back five shots over the next three holes.

“I don’t think it was one bad shot,” Choi said. “I feel like I left some shots out there. Luckily, we’re all so close and still have a chance.”

Choi and Shin also are the only players in the running for the money title. So far Choi has earned $1,814,558 for a $34,790 lead over Shin.

The chilly conditions, by Florida standards, made greens firm and fast. But it was the course, a Jack Nicklaus-design that was renovated between 2007-08 with more undulating greens, that really made things difficult.

Even some of the more seasoned pros couldn’t believe the course bears Nicklaus’ name.

“He must have been having a very bad day,” quipped Laura Davies, who shot an opening-round 70. “Someone went mental on the greens.”

The field doesn’t have much time to make a push.

The LPGA Tour Championship is applying the same format it used last season, cutting to the lowest 70 scores and ties after 36 holes and an additional cut after 54 holes to the lowest 30 players and ties. That makes the margin for error even slimmer.

“Especially with the cold weather again (Friday),” Yang said. “Another safe game, yeah. At least I’ll try.”

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LPGA Tour players, executives, partners and friends travel in a Monaco RV speading the word about the Tour’s exciting season and its Florida finale

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paulacreamer

Paula Creamer

Before the LPGA Tour season comes to a riveting conclusion December 2-5 with the LPGA Tour Championship at the Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando, a host of LPGA players, executives, partners and friends will travel in a Monaco RV to visit with fans and spread the word about the Tour’s exciting season and its Florida finale.

The LPGA Road Trip Driven by Monaco RV / Alliance Coach “kicks off” this weekend with a couple of football games: A visit to Gainesville on Saturday, November 13 for a University of Florida SEC football showdown by former Gators golfer Sandra Gal, followed the next day by a trip to Tampa for an NFL Buccaneers game with LPGA player Karen Stupples, a rabid Bucs fan. The Monaco RV Diplomat will weave around Florida over the next week and a half, wrapping up the Road Trip just prior to Thanksgiving on November 23 with a “Feed the Hungry” visit to Caring Hands Ministry in Wildwood, Florida, home of Alliance Coach, where participants in the Road Trip will prepare special pre-Thanksgiving meals.

Suzann Pettersen

“We’re thrilled to partner once again with the LPGA and its players, who not only know how to entertain and engage their fans, but also open their hearts to the communities where they visit,” said Ryan Lee, Monaco RV Director of Marketing. “As Presenting Sponsor of the Navistar LPGA Classic, we’ve enjoyed great success with the Tour and love the idea of partnering for a fun, interactive road trip.” Added LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan: “Monaco RV’s a great success story—a former small, specialty RV manufacturer that has grown into a thriving company producing annual revenue exceeding $1 billion—so we’re proud to work with them both at our annual Navistar tournament as well as the countdown to the LPGA Tour Championship.”

The LPGA Road Trip Driven by Monaco RV / Alliance Coach also will be supported by LPGA and LPGA Tour Championship partners including Pepsi, Blue Diamond Almonds, Choice Hotels and Florida‘s Natural® Brand.

Besides the aforementioned football events with Sandra Gal and Karen Stupples, the Road Trip also will feature a number of other activities and appearances including:

  • Yani Tseng

    Paula Creamer gets her first up-close view of the new Amway Center during an Orlando Magic game

  • Suzann Pettersen visits Grand Cypress Golf Club for a special media day
  • A visit to the World Golf of Fame & Museum in historic St. Augustine (www.WorldGolfHallofFame.org)
  • Yani Tseng talks about the Race for the Rolex Rankings No. 1 and Rolex Player of the Year during a visit to the Lake Nona area where she lives
  • Sherri Steinhauer defends her title at the Legends Tour Open Championship at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor Nov. 20-21
  • Scheduled appearances by Florida-based LPGA players Na Yeon Choi, Song-Hee Kim, Christina Kim, Amy Yang, Meredith Duncan, Mindy Kim and more.

Media and fans both are welcome to participate in the Road Trip, either in person or via the websites of the LPGA, Monaco RV and Alliance Coach, along with their affiliated Facebook pages, YouTube.com channels and Twitter feeds.

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