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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Updated: February 9, 9:06 AM ET
LPGA loaded with compelling players

By Mick Elliott

Suzann Pettersen
Norway's Suzann Pettersen, perhaps the game's most athletic player, will try to move up from No. 2.

The LPGA's 2012 roster includes golfers from 28 countries, a mixture of major champions, seasoned veterans, future stars, winless dreamers and pretty much everything in between.

Promise and optimism are plentiful as the season is set to begin Thursday with the Women's Australian Open at Royal Melbourne. The schedule has grown to 27 events, and the year's total purse is $6 million richer.

Not in a long time has women's golf started a season believing it had so much to see.

With an eye on the future, here are 10 players to watch.

Four at the front

Yani Tseng, Taiwan
World ranking: No. 1
Rookie year: 2008
Career LPGA victories: 12

There is every reason to expect that Tseng, who turned 23 last month, will continue to mature and improve.

That should be a scary thought for the rest of the LPGA.

Yani Tseng
Yani Tseng won seven LPGA events last year, including two majors.

Tseng won seven LPGA tournaments, including two majors, last season -- five more than anyone else -- and won four more abroad.

After victories in the LPGA Championship and Women's British Open, she became the youngest player ever, male or female (22 years, 6 months and 8 days), to win five career majors. She also became the youngest to win consecutive Player of the Year awards, clinching the honor with five events remaining.

"My goals for this year, of course, I would like to keep improving my status and my physical fitness," Tseng said before leaving her home in Orlando, Fla., to fly to the Australian Open. "My trainer has been working with me, and my coach has gotten my swing more consistent. I can't wait to get out and play and just enjoy the game."

If Tseng were a stock, one word: BUY.

Suzann Pettersen, Norway
World ranking: No. 2
Rookie year: 2003
Career LPGA victories: 8

Pettersen, 30, is arguably the best all-around athlete on the LPGA Tour. Her natural athletic ability and fiery competitive nature are evident in how she plays -- or attacks.

One of the tour's longest hitters, Pettersen led the LPGA last year in greens hit (74.5 percent) and also ranked in the top 10 in scoring average, top-10 finishes and rounds in the 60s.

After ending a 20-month winless streak with a final-hole birdie to defeat Cristie Kerr in the Sybase Match Play Championship in May, Pettersen won her second title of the year at the Safeway Classic in August to move to No. 2 in the world ranking -- her career high. She also starred for Europe in its Solheim Cup victory, fashioning a 3-1-0 record.

"It [was] a very nice year," Pettersen said at the end of 2011. "You can never complain when you get wins. One win is great, two wins is fantastic. It kind of makes my season look average when Yani has won seven, eight tournaments on the LPGA. She makes us all work harder."

Her track record suggests Pettersen will respond to the challenge.

Na Yeon Choi, South Korea
World ranking: No. 3
Rookie year: 2008
Career LPGA victories: 5

Choi, who turned 24 in October, won her fifth career LPGA title last year in the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and finished the season second in scoring average (70.53).

Committed to a long LPGA career -- she travels with a full-time English language tutor -- Choi's strengths are steadiness and consistency, with a wide range of talents.

She is better than average off the tee, ranking 31st in driving distance with an average of 254.6 yards last year. She was 15th in greens hit and 19th in putting.

"I trusted my game, and then it was getting better," Choi said at the 2011 season-ending Titleholders.

Cristie Kerr, U.S.
World ranking: No. 4
Rookie year: 1997
Career LPGA victories: 14

It will be interesting to see what the world's top-ranked American does this year because of what she didn't do in 2011. That would be win.

Every LPGA season since 2003 had produced at least one victory for Kerr until last year came along.

She did finish the season with three seconds, three thirds and three fourths and a total of 12 top-10s, but a bothersome bout with tendinitis in her right wrist throughout the second half of the year took most of the fun away.

Now, at 34, it's easy to wonder how Kerr will rebound from last year's disappointment and hurt.

"It was frustrating," said Kerr, a former world No. 1. "I've never had to deal with trying to pay attention to an injury like that."

Otherwise, there seems to be no reason Kerr, if healthy, cannot return to her winning ways. There may be no better putter on tour, and last year she ranked sixth in greens hit and third in birdies and rounds under par.

Four who could break through

Lexi Thompson, U.S.
World ranking: No. 39
Rookie year: 2012
Career LPGA victories: 1

Thompson's arrival in the LPGA will bring the most buzz women's golf has enjoyed in years.

When Thompson, a home-schooled 16-year-old from South Florida playing on a sponsor's invitation, won the Navistar Classic in Prattville, Ala., last year, she didn't become just the youngest tournament winner in LPGA history. She also became an instant celebrity, and after receiving an age waiver allowing her LPGA membership, became, according to many observers, the future of women's golf in the United States.

That's a heavy burden to carry, but Thompson, who turns 17 on Friday, has shown a level of maturity and physical strength far beyond her years. Standing a shade under 6 feet, she absolutely stripes the golf ball with an aggressive swing developed by playing against two older brothers growing up.

She will win. When and how often is still in question, but no one in women's golf will be watched more closely.

"Winning definitely gave me a lot more confidence," she said at the end of last year. "But like I've said, I go into every event wanting to win, but you know, it's not going to happen every time, so you just gotta take it shot by shot and hope it goes well."

Jiyai Shin, South Korea
World ranking: No. 7
Rookie year: 2009
Career LPGA victories: 5

Shin won three times in 2009 and twice in 2010 to take over the world No. 1 ranking after Lorena Ochoa retired. It may have been too much too soon for the young woman who turned 23 last year.

"I tried to push myself," she told reporters last year.

South Korean fans and media impressed upon Shin that anything less than winning was failure.

At the start of her LPGA career, Shin said pressure was a constant companion, "all the time, right next to me."

Last year, she did not win, although she finished second twice. But something bigger may have happened.

During last year's U.S. Women's Open, Shin acknowledged a need to see the game as something to play, not as the gauge of her self-worth.

"I want to make another life," she said, voicing a need to do more than play golf.

In Shin's case, stepping back could be a great leap forward.

Stacy Lewis, U.S.
World ranking: No. 9
Rookie year: 2009
Career LPGA victories: 1

Lewis' golf during 2011 was almost as good as her story is inspiring -- and that's pretty strong.

Stacy Lewis
Stacy Lewis overcame years of major back problems to win her first LPGA major last year.

The 26-year-old former Arkansas Razorback made her first LPGA title a major by winning last year's Kraft Nabisco Championship by three shots over runner-up Tseng. She also finished second in the Evian Masters and Canadian Open and competed on her first U.S. Solheim Cup team.

But most impressive is Lewis' determination to play. She suffers from scoliosis, a curving of the spine. She learned of the malady at age 11 and for the next 7½ years wore a back brace 18 hours a day, hoping to avoid surgery.

She could not. Shortly after graduating from high school, where she was a standout golfer despite the cumbersome brace, Lewis underwent surgery, risking the possibility of paralysis.

Two metal rods, each about 6 inches long, were placed into her vertebra. Five screws hold them in place. For six months, she could not bend, twist or lift anything heavier than 5 pounds.

Now, she's competing as one of the top American players on tour.

"The year was awesome," she said at Titleholders. "After winning, I didn't want to have a letdown. I didn't want to be the person that won the first major and then played horrible the rest of the year. So I continued to work hard and get myself back in the spot to have a chance to win."

Brittany Lincicome, U.S.
World ranking: No. 10
Rookie year: 2005
Career LPGA victories: 5

Known on tour as "Boom-Boom" for her extra-long tee ball, Lincicome enjoyed her best season as a pro in 2011, winning twice to join Pettersen and Karrie Webb as the season win leaders not known as Yani Tseng.

Lincicome, who averages more than 267 yards off the tee, is a better-than-average putter but needs to hit more fairways and greens. Maybe even more important, she insists, is the mental game.

"I've been working with VISION54, with a sports psychologist," Lincicome told reporters last year. "And something we've been working on is kind of take one hole at a time, don't get ahead of yourself and don't think of the outcome."

Although only 26, Lincicome is beginning her eighth season on tour and has the tools to become one of the game's elite players.

Two to get to know

Sandra Gal, Germany
World ranking: No. 41
Rookie year: 2008
Career LPGA victories: 1

With the exception of Norway's Pettersen, Europeans are not a force on the LPGA, but the 6-foot-tall Gal has a lot of things going for her that can fuel star power.

First, she has game. Gal won her first career LPGA title last year with a victory at the Kia Classic, defeating then-world No. 2 Shin with a 72nd-hole birdie. She added four additional top-10s, including a tie for second at Titleholders, and competed on the winning European Solheim Cup team.

Gal is decent off the tee (averaging 250 in driving distance), hits a lot of greens and is a good putter.

The native of Dusseldorf, who came to the United States to play college golf at the University of Florida, paints and plays the violin. She believes that creative side helps on the golf course.

"Definitely," she said. "I have a lot of shots that I can hit. I like to curve the ball once in a while if a pin is tucked, and I do see a lot of different shots, especially around the greens. I'm a very visual person, so I think that helps."

Kathleen Ekey, U.S.
World ranking: No. 332
Rookie year: 2012
Career LPGA victories: None

Ekey joins the LPGA this year on the strength of last year's performance on the developmental Future's Tour, where she won the money title and Player of the Year honors, collecting two victories and seven top-10s in 16 events.

"This has been a dream for longer than I can remember," she said last year, shortly after earning LPGA exempt status for 2012.

While at the University of Alabama, Ekey was a two-time All-SEC first-team pick and a two-time All-American honorable mention. She competed in two U.S. Women's Opens and in four U.S. Women's Amateurs.