KAHUKU, Hawaii (AP) — At nearly every turn at Turtle Bay, there are posters of Annika Sorenstam covered in leis, proudly celebrating the 70th of her 72 titles in her spectacular LPGA Tour career.
With the 2008 SBS Open champion enjoying retirement, several youngsters are vying to make their mark, including a special class of so-called “rookies.”
The group includes Jiyai Shin, Stacy Lewis, Vicky Hurst and Michelle Wie, who was happy to be home, confident and looking for a fresh start to her career when play begins Thursday in the season-opening event.
“These four rookies that we talk about headlining the rookie class, every single one of them feel capable of sweeping the LPGA,” tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens said. “They’re fearless. They’re not typical rookies.”
Wie appeared relaxed during her pro-am round Wednesday, joking with her caddie, signing autographs and comfortably crushing drives like in year’s past.
“I feel like it’s a whole new beginning for me. It’s a completely new slate,” Wie said. “I’m not going to think about the past and not even going to think too much of the future. I’m just really excited for this week, for tomorrow, and I’m just going to think about what I can do best for each moment.”
While the rookies have all made a name for themselves through winning on different levels, none of them come close to having the endorsement deals, bank account and fame of Wie, who for years has been looking to add to her trophy case.
Wie, who first played an LPGA event at age 12, is trying to change that and said she’s been working on her game “constantly.”
“The game’s a funny thing. One day it feels really good and other days you have to work hard on it,” she said. “But I’ve been working on it really hard … So hopefully my game’s a lot better than it was, ever before. I’m really excited to show that.”
Wie said the rookies are all unique in their own way with different histories, but she realizes the competition is getting stiffer. She is surrounded by young up-and-coming stars.
The 20-year-old Shin, who was referred to by a member of the Korean media as “super rookie,” is coming off a phenomenal year where she became the first non-LPGA member to win three events. Shin’s victories include the Women’s British Open and the season-ending ADT Championship. She also has 20 titles on the Korea LPGA.
Lewis, who turns 24 next week, is the oldest of the four rookies. The Q-school winner turned pro in June and competed in seven LPGA events. She had two top-10 finishes, including a tie for third in the U.S. Women’s Open. Before turning pro, she went 5-0 in the Curtis Cup last summer and also starred at the University of Arkansas, where she won 12 events and was the 2007 NCAA champion.
Hurst dominated the Duramed Futures Tour last season, winning five times in 13 starts to earn rookie and player of the year honors.
The 18-year-old Hurst, from Melbourne, Fla., said she feels no resentment “at all” toward Wie.
“I just try to stay focused with my plan and my goals and stay focused on what I want to achieve this week and this year,” Hurst said. “We’ve all taken different paths, all the rookies this year. I think you can never say who’s done it better.”
Hurst said she’s now competing on a whole new level, but she’s just trying to keep the attitude that she made it here just like everyone else.
“I’m going in with an open mind, seeing how the first tournament goes and then take it from there,” Hurst said. “Probably previous years when I played LPGA events it was more intimidating, but now that I’m out here, this is my new family.”
That makes Wie her older sister, by nine months.
The SBS marks Wie’s first event as a full-fledged member of the LPGA. It also is her first LPGA start since July when she was disqualified from the State Farm Classic, one shot behind going into the final round, when it was determined she left the scoring area without signing her card after the second round.
She also opened 2008 in Hawaii at the Fields Open, where she closed with a 6-over 78 to tie for last among the 74 players who made the cut.
She played the first SBS in 2005 as a 15-year-old amateur and tied for second at Turtle Bay with Cristie Kerr, two strokes behind winner Jennifer Rosales. Wie was the lone amateur in the field and the only player to shoot under par for three rounds.
It also was at Turtle Bay in 2006 that she became the first female to win a local qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open. She earned the first of three spots into the sectionals.
Then came wrist injuries in 2007 that shook her confidence and her promising game. But she ended 2008 at Q-school on a high note, where she earned her LPGA card.
“I guess it’s the home factor. I just play well (here),” said Wie, who grew up about an hour-drive away.
Besides the talented rookies, there are several seasoned veterans like 2007 champion Paula Creamer, who finished second on the money list behind top-ranked Lorena Ochoa last year after winning four events.
“It’s hard to believe. I’m 22 and considered a veteran now,” Creamer said.
Yani Tseng, the 2008 rookie of the year and LPGA Championship winner, also is entered. A year ago at Turtle Bay, Tseng was ranked 133rd in the world. Today, she’s No. 2.
The SBS is the first of 30 events on the LPGA Tour this year, down from 34 in 2008. The loss of the four events represents nearly $10 million in prize money being erased.