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Monday, March 26, 2012
Storylines, players to watch at Nabisco

By Mick Elliott

The Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major championship of 2012, tees off Thursday, and it will be all about Yani Tseng.

Defending Nabisco champion Stacy Lewis, who defeated Tseng by 3 strokes last year to earn her first LPGA title, returns as part of a field that is expected to feature 49 of the world's top 50 players. (The only top-50 golfer not in the field is Juli Inkster; she's recuperating from nerve surgery on her right elbow.)

Fresh off a 6-shot victory Sunday in the Kia Classic, Tseng has won six of her past 12 outings dating to last season.

The KNC, known to have a flavor all its own, has been a regular stop on the LPGA schedule since 1972 and one of the women's majors since 1983. It is typically dwarfed by the PGA Tour's drive to the Masters, but maybe not this year.

Here are five storylines and players to watch this week:

Yani Tseng
At 23, Yani Tseng already has won 15 LPGA events and 35 worldwide titles.

Storylines to watch

1. Who's up to the challenge?
Tseng, the world's No. 1 player, has won two of the past four majors and four of the past eight, including the Kraft Nabisco in 2010. So far this season, she has three wins and five top-10 finishes in five events. She also ranks No. 1 in birdies and No. 2 in scoring average.

At this point, every major championship is another opportunity for the 23-year-old from Taiwan to rewrite history. Last season, she became the youngest professional golfer, male or female, to win four, then five, majors. The more momentum Tseng gains early, the less likely it is that the competition will be able to slow her down in the remainder of 2012 -- and beyond.

2. Teen power
It's fun to be young, especially on the LPGA Tour. When Lexi Thompson won the Navistar LPGA Classic last year at age 16 while playing on a sponsor's exemption, she became, to many, the future of U.S. women's golf. But she's not the only teen with a can-do attitude.

In her second year on tour, American Jessica Korda won her first career LPGA event at the Women's Australian Open in February, just a few weeks before her 19th birthday, making her the fourth-youngest LPGA winner of a 72-hole event.

South Korea's Jenny Shin, who will turn 20 in October, is also off to a hot start in her second year. She has three top-10 finishes in her first four events, including runner-up at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore in February.

3. She's an American girl
Don't look now, but the LPGA is five events into its 2012 season and no one is asking, "What's wrong with American golf?" And for good reason. Two of the five winners have been Americans. In fact, take away Tseng, and the LPGA's only winners are American. The year stated with Korda winning in Australia and veteran Angela Stanford claiming victory in Singapore. Last year, international players won 19 of 23 LPGA events and seven of the world's top 10 were non-Americans. Europe also won the Solheim Cup.

4. What's going on with Lexi Thompson?
It's almost unfair to ask why a 17-year-old hasn't done more, but that's the heavy price of ridiculous expectations. Thompson raised those expectations by winning the Navistar last year and is playing in her rookie season because the LPGA waived a bylaw that requires members to be at least 18.

So far this season, Thompson has played four events (she finished in a tie for 24th in Australia, tied for 14th in Thailand, tied for 51st in Phoenix and tied for 37th on Sunday at the Kia). This week could be an opportunity for her to make an impact. In two previous appearances at the Kraft Nabisco as an amateur, Thompson tied for 21st in 2009 and tied for 24th in 2010.

5. Celebrate good times!
After Sunday's final day of action, how will the latest Nabisco champion celebrate her title? It has become tradition that the champion celebrates by, well, jumping into a lake. Amy Alcott was the first to do it, in 1988 in what is now known as the Kraft Nabisco "champion's leap." She spontaneously rushed off the 18th green and splashed into the adjoining lake.

Some years have been better than others. When Pat Hurst won in 1998, she only waded into the water because she couldn't swim. In 2002, Annika Sorenstam went only knee-deep because she was holding hands with the young daughter of her caddie. Last year, Lewis celebrated by having caddie, Travis Wilson, and her sister, mother and father join her in making the jump. Unfortunately, Lewis' mother, Carol, landed awkwardly close to the bank and broke her fibula.

That's the only reported injury, although Dottie Pepper made the jump in 1999 and later became ill. Doctors believe it was caused by contamination from the water.

Five players to watch

1. Yani Tseng
Until proven otherwise, Tseng will be the focal point at any major. She's already the winner of 15 LPGA events and 35 worldwide titles -- at age 23. Tseng reached the $8 million milestone in career winnings in a record four years, one month and two days as an LPGA player (99 events). The previous record had been held by Lorena Ochoa, who reached the mark in four years, four months and 16 days (115 events).

2. Na Yeon Choi
If you are asking "Who is Na Yeon Choi?" the answer is "the best player in the world you have not heard of." The 24-year-old South Korean, a five-time LPGA winner, moved past Norway's Suzann Pettersen into the world No. 2 spot a few weeks ago. She's known as a serious contender with lots of game. This year, she has two runner-up finishes and is coming off an 18th-place finish Sunday in the Kia. Choi won the LPGA money title in 2010 and was third last year. In the past 11 LPGA majors, she has six top-10 finishes, including a second at the 2011 U.S. Women's Open.

3. Suzann Pettersen
The 30-year-old Norwegian, arguably the best athlete on the LPGA, is going to draw a lot of attention this week no matter what she does, good or bad. After a breakout 2011 season that included two victories, a starring role in Europe's Solheim Cup win and a climb to the world No. 2 ranking behind Tseng, Pettersen seemed ready to make 2012 a banner year.

There is still plenty of time, but she has not done much so far. In three events, Pettersen's best finish has been a tie for 21st.

"I've been playing a lot of good golf this year," Pettersen told reporters this past week. "It's been a slow start if you look at where I've been finishing, but if I look at the game and I evaluate the game, I feel pretty good. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully I can roll in a few more putts, and that would make a huge difference."

This week could be a great place to start; Pettersen is a three-time runner-up at the Kraft Nabisco.

4. Shanshan Feng
Feng became the first Chinese player to earn LPGA membership when she tied for ninth at Q-school in fall 2007. In the seasons since, Feng has been steady (13 top-10 finishes) but far from sensational. So far this year, the 22-year-old's play is starting to suggest she could climb into the circle of elite LPGA players. In three tournaments, Feng has finished tied for fifth, tied for second and tied for third, with all 12 of her competitive rounds at par or better.

5. Cristie Kerr
No. 4 in the world, Kerr failed to win an event last year for the first time since 2003. She's 34 but still has the fiery combativeness that has helped produce 14 career LPGA titles. This week would be a good time to prove it. She has two career majors on her résumé, but Kerr has never won the Kraft Nabisco, although she did finish second in 2009. Hoping to rebound quickly from last year's winless season, Kerr could use a strong showing this week. In four 2012 events, she has only one top-10, a tie for sixth at the Founders.