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Monday, November 21, 2011
Tseng, Thompson are two for the ages

By Mick Elliott

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It is fair to say that since its formation in 1950, the LPGA has had better years than the 2011 season that wrapped up Sunday at Grand Cypress Resort, where South Korea's Hee Young Park won her first tour title.

Just as true, it has had a whole lot worse.

But what the LPGA may have done best this year was find its footing. Under second-year commissioner Mike Whan, the women's tour made huge strides toward reestablishing an identity and rebuilding an eroding fan base.

Nothing gets people's attention like the ability to make interesting news. Here are the highlights -- and lowlights -- of 2011.

Player of the year

No debate. Twenty-two-year-old Taiwanese superhero Yani Tseng owned the 2011 LPGA season.

She won seven tournaments and recorded 14 top-10s in 22 events. She won four other international titles. Two of the victories were majors -- the LPGA Championship and the Women's British -- giving her a career total of five, the most by any professional golfer, male or female, at such a young age.

She has held the women's world No. 1 ranking for 40 consecutive weeks.

With 12 career LPGA victories, five major championships, two Rolex Player of the Year honors and the 2011 Vare Trophy (lowest scoring average), Tseng has 20 points toward the LPGA and World Golf halls of fame. She needs just seven more -- and 10 years as a member of the LPGA -- to qualify for what is considered one of the toughest halls of fame to enter.

Hey, everybody, look!

The season's greatest mainstream attention grabber came courtesy of South Florida's 16-year-old Lexi Thompson, with a jaw-dropping five-shot victory at the Navistar LPGA Classic in September.

Thompson, who a year earlier had taken criticism for what many considered a rush to turn pro, wasn't even an LPGA member because of the tour's minimum age requirement of 18.

But playing on a sponsor's exemption, the teen carded rounds of 66-68-67-70 to finish 17 under par and five strokes in front of Tiffany Joh.

Two weeks later, the LPGA granted Thompson's petition for an age-restriction waiver. American women's golf will have a new banner carrier beginning next year.

Schedule comes up short

The LPGA's 2011 season produced some pretty good tournaments, just not enough of them.

The abrupt midseason cancellation of the Imperial Springs LPGA in China cut the schedule to 23 events, and one of those, the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, paid no prize money -- the entire purse went to charity.

Worst of all, only 11 of the tournaments had fields of 144 or more, and total prize money fell to $41.5 million.

The last time the LPGA played as few as 23 tournaments was in 1971, when the schedule had 21 events. In fact, the tour has played fewer than 23 tournaments in a season only twice since 1955 -- 1970 also had 21 events.

Whan went on record during this season targeting a 30-tourament schedule for the immediate future. If he can make that happen by 2014, the effort would be considered a monster success.

Annika's baby

LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, 41, gave birth to her and husband Mike McGee's second child in March -- a little early.

Sorenstam announced the birth of William Nicholas McGee with a Twitter post that read, "Surprise!"

The family's new addition arrived 12 weeks ahead of schedule. Will spent 57 days in the hospital before being cleared to go home.

The couple already had a daughter, Ava.

The fifth major

If four major championships are the highlight of a golf season, then five should be even better.

The Evian Masters, long a favorite among LPGA players for its Paris stage and supersized purse, was tagged for major status beginning in 2013, joining the Kraft Nabisco, LPGA Championship, U.S. Women's Open and British Women's Open on the grand slam schedule.

In the 1970s and '80s, winning a major was a more difficult task. The LPGA had only three majors on its schedule from 1979 to '82, and only two for most of the '70s.

The good news for current players is there will be more chances to be a major champion. But does this mean Sorenstam and a handful of other stars from the past will no longer own a career Grand Slam?

Couple of the day ... or two

OK, it was a long way from the Adventures of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, but professional golf had its brush with celebrity romance that got tongues wagging.

PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson and LPGA poster girl Natalie Gulbis became golf's power couple when the telegenic twosome quietly began dating after competing alongside each other at the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge late last year.

The romance went public in January when Gulbis followed Johnson during the Tournament of Champions.

When asked, Gulbis confirmed they were dating but said with a laugh, "I'll let Dustin handle our PR."

Except, when asked, Johnson declined comment and later insisted the couple "were just friends" and he already was seeing someone.

Oops.

Interestingly, the two have not been spotted in public together since.

Kerr shut out

For the first time since 2003, American Cristie Kerr went an entire season without a victory.

The shutout was particularly surprising because 11 events into the season, she had seven top-4 finishes, including a string of five second or third places.

"It's felt like a bit of bad luck," Kerr said. "Some of the tournaments where I came in second, I played awesome but somebody played better. That's the way it goes sometimes."

Woe is Wie

The golf world continues to wait on Michelle Wie to live up to the self-fueled hype that accompanied her to the LPGA in 2009, but its patience is wearing thin.

Wie, who has two career wins, managed only seven top-10s (two runners-up) in 20 events this year. She also absorbed a couple of pointed shots from two of the most respected voices in women's golf during U.S. Women's Open week.

Sorenstam suggested Wie, who continues working on her degree at Stanford while playing, does not concentrate sufficiently on golf to be an elite player.

Dottie Pepper, an NBC commentator, dropped a hammer by saying, "I think she has not performed up to her physical talents. Not even close."

A thrilling Solheim Cup

With Norway's Suzann Pettersen as its heart and soul, a scrappy European team upset the United States in Solheim Cup play at Ireland's Killeen Castle.

Going into the competition, the United States held an 8-3 advantage in the rivalry and had won three in a row.

With Pettersen the only Euro ranked among the world's top 20 and the Americans again favored, much of the prematch talk centered on the event's relevance. Because it's a U.S-Europe competition, 19 of the world's top 30 players -- most of them Asian -- were not eligible.

Instead, good play and a nail-biting finish produced a 15-13 upset and renewed a rivalry.

Putt of the year

All square with Kerr on the final hole of the Sybase Match Play final at Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, N.J., Pettersen curled in a 15-foot putt for birdie, polishing off her first win since 2009 and starting a march that raised her to the world No. 2 ranking by season's end.

Shot of the year

Brittany Lincicome won the Shoprite Classic on the strength of one birdie during the final round -- on the 18th hole.

After a 3-wood second shot on the par-5 finishing hole landed left of the green in fescue grass, Lincicome deftly hit a lob wedge to inside four feet to set up the birdie that produced a one-shot win -- her first in two years.

Given the circumstances, no shot during the year was better. How tough was it? Lincicome backed off the shot once because her hands were shaking so much.

"I could have hit a bucket of balls and not gotten it that close," Lincicome said about the chip.

Quote marks

"It's an honor to be on this team, and I'm ready to kick Europe's butt." -- LPGA rookie Ryan O'Toole, after being selected as a captain's pick by U.S. leader Rosie Jones

"Well, that's why we got her. She's got moxie." -- Rosie Jones, in response

"Objects in your rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear." -- LPGA rookie of the year Hee Kyung Seo, playfully aiming the comment toward countrywoman Yani Tseng after accepting her award

(Reserved) celebration of the year

After Tseng won the LPGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., the first of her two major titles this year, how did she celebrate?

"I am going to Niagara Falls tomorrow, look at that beautiful place and then back to Orlando and to the swimming pool," she said. "Just relax and enjoy."

By the numbers

• 4: Wins by Americans in 2011 -- two by Lincicome and one each by Stacy Lewis and Thompson.

• 10: Countries in which the LPGA played regular-season events.

• 63: The season's low round, shared by I.K Kim and Sakura Yokomine.

• 1: Wire-to-wire winner: Tseng, who did it twice.

• 7: Consecutive below-par holes by Na Yeon Choi during the first round of the Safeway Classic.

• 54: Consecutive holes without a bogey by Jiyai Shin at the Mizuno Classic.