New stars and old hands highlighted '06 LPGA season

Pretty much nothing went as expected for the LPGA in 2006, and that was not necessarily a bad thing. What was more surprising, that Annika Sorenstam missed a cut or that Se Ri Pak won a major? With one of the strongest freshman classes in nearly two decades, an unknown 20-year-old Korean won the Louise Suggs Award as top rookie. And who would have thought that the tour's much-anticipated public relations breakthrough year would be marked by a series of PR nightmares? But in the end, golf won out as the depth of talent -- led by the big four of Cristie Kerr, Lorena Ochoa, Sorenstam and Karrie Webb -- continued to grow.

Player of the year
Lorena Ochoa: The humble Mexican turned 25 last week, two days before she survived a playoff to make it to the third round of the ADT Championship, but she just completed her fourth full year on tour. It was also her best. Ochoa, who makes it a practice to visit Hispanic course-maintenance workers at tournaments, won six events and finished second six times. She captured the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.24), led the tour in earnings, birdies, eagles and greens in regulation, and ended Sorenstam's five-year run by winning the tour's official award: the Rolex Player of the Year.

Rookie of the year
Julieta Granada: Seon-Hwa Lee, the 20-year-old Korean mentioned above, won tour honors based on the LPGA's point system, but by the time Granada, also 20, took home the $1 million check at the ADT Championship, she had emerged as the class of a strong rookie group that included Ai Miyazato and Morgan Pressel. Lee got most of her points early, with three runner-up finishes and a victory at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, but Granada closed strong with a first and a second in her last five events. The big check in Florida allowed her to jump from 19th to fourth on the money list with $1,633,586. Lee, who tied for last at Trump International GC, finished 12th in earnings.

Rookie of the year (nonmember division)
Michelle Wie: Before Wie reached her 17th birthday in October, she had a second, three thirds and two fifth-place finishes in six LPGA events, including three majors. She ended 2006 the way she began it: deciding against petitioning the LPGA for membership and playing tournaments against men.

Shot of the year
Karrie Webb: The Australian dunked a pitching wedge from 116 yards on the last hole of regulation for eagle and ended up in a playoff with Ochoa at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. One hole later Webb had the first of her five wins in 2006. A close runner-up for this honor was Se Ri Pak, who hit a 4-hybrid from 201 yards to an inch of the cup on the first extra hole to defeat Webb in a playoff at the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

Round of the year
Cristie Kerr: How impressive was Kerr's 61 in the second round of the John Q. Hammonds Hotel Classic outside Tulsa, Okla.? Consider that it came on the same Cedar Ridge CC course where Jan Stephenson won the 1983 U.S. Women's Open with a 6-over-par total.

Tournaments of the year
The Kraft Nabisco Championship, McDonald's LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open: This three-way tie was caused because all three went to playoffs, the first time three women's majors went to extra holes in the same year. And all involved the biggest names on tour. Webb beat Ochoa in the Nabisco, Pak edged Webb in the McDonald's and Sorenstam outlasted Pat Hurst on the extra day at the Women's Open in Newport, R.I.

Surprise of the year
Sorenstam missing the cut at the Michelob Ultra Open: A pair of 73s left Sorenstam 1 stroke from playing on the weekend, marking her first missed cut in a non-major since 1994.

Comeback of the year
Karrie Webb: Juli Inkster won for the first time since 2003, and Pak won a major after a disastrous 2005 season in which she earned only $62,628. But the award has to go to Webb, who was shut out in 2005 for the only time in her 12-year career. Once the best player on tour, she played like it again this year, winning five times and earning $2,090,113.

Disappointment of the year
The tour's off-course controversies during Carolyn Bivens' first year as commissioner: An eagerly awaited season with a strong rookie class, a ton of maturing talent and, in Sorenstam, one of the best female golfers in history, was dominated for much of the year by off-course distractions. Some media boycotted the first round of the year's second tournament, the Fields Open in Hawaii, in a dispute over credential language; three tour executives resigned on the eve of the McDonald's LPGA Championship; and longtime tournaments in Atlanta, Atlantic City, N.J., and Columbus, Ohio, were played for the last time. While things seemed to settle down by season's end, there were still questions about several events for 2007, and the TV schedule had yet to be worked out.

The best news for the year
Six rookies who finished in the top 25 on the money list: Also, young veterans like Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Brittany Lincicome give the tour an impressive array of marketable stars, and a new group of players ready to challenge the Big Four for supremacy.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.