Remember the LPGA? In 2003 the tour enjoyed one of its most
triumphant seasons, juiced by telegenic young talent, a teenage
phenom and the ascension of its top player into a first-name-only
icon. Yet all of that seems so long ago, doesn't it? The LPGA's
last full-field event was in the first week of October. The most
recent competition of any kind was the ADT Championship in late
November. The absence of the tour was all the more glaring because
the men's game continues to enjoy a year-round global presence.
The LPGA finally ended its winter hibernation last week in Tucson
at the Welch's/Fry's Championship, and the good news is that no one
forgot how to play. Jung Yeon Lee, a 25-year-old Korean beginning
her third season on tour, put a charge into Opening Day by going 10
under on her first 16 holes at the par-70 Dell Urich Golf Course at
Randolph Park. Bidding to become only the second woman to shoot 59,
along with Annika--last name Sorenstam, but you already knew
that--Lee had a slightly downhill, right-to-left, 20-foot birdie
putt on the last hole for her piece of history. She made an
aggressive run at it but missed on the amateur side. Afterward Lee
betrayed no disappointment, perhaps because she was unaware of what
was at stake, since she later admitted that she had thought Dell
Urich was a par 72. "I was so happy to be out there," said Lee, who
went on to tie for second, five strokes behind Karen Stupples, a
30-year-old from England who earned her first career victory with
an LPGA-record score of 258, 22 under par. "It seems like almost
forever since our last tournament."
The Welch's/Fry's had the feeling of the first week of school
following summer break. Players showed off new hair
styles--Christina Kim turned up with a shade she described as
"construction-flag orange turned fire-engine red"--and new bodies.
Danielle Ammaccapane finished 42nd despite being six months
pregnant. How did she spend her off-season? "Sitting at home
getting fat," according to her sister, Dina.
Hee-Won Han also spent the off-season tending to family business:
She starred in what is, so far, the wedding of the century in
Korea. On Dec. 20 Han married Hyuk Son, a standout pitcher for the
Doosan Bears, in front of 1,000 guests at the swank
Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul. The wedding was covered heavily in
the Korean media, and last week Han spent much of the tournament
replaying the highlights for her colleagues. "Everyone says,
'Congratulations, congratulations,' so that's nice," says Han. "But
For all the excitement of being together again, there was also
plenty of grumbling among the players. The long off-season--and the
abbreviated, 31-tournament schedule that spawns it--has widened the
gulf between the haves and the have-nots on the LPGA tour. "I know
I'm spoiled, but I love all the time off," says Grace Park, who
finished third on the 2003 money list with more than $1.4 million.
Park spent six weeks in South Korea with her family, during which
she barely touched a club, but upon returning home to Phoenix she
still had plenty of time to improve her physical conditioning and
work on tightening her swing. But some players who struggled on the
course last year were forced to take menial jobs this winter to pay
the bills, a throwback to an earlier era when Byron Nelson
supplemented his income as a teaching pro. Michelle Estill ($13,401
in '03 earnings) took a job pumping gas at a Citgo station in
Milwaukee, earning $7 an hour. Dina Ammaccapane ($29,260) worked at
Scottsdale's Desert Mountain Club in "outside services," which is a
euphemism for cart girl. Amy Fruhwirth ($102,252) made $7.15 an
hour working at Pier 1 Imports in Scottsdale.
"Having six months off stinks," says Estill. "Whether you're a
professional athlete or not, working only six months a year,
there's something wrong with that."
Adds Dina Ammaccapane, who missed the cut last week by seven
strokes, "I needed some structure in my life, and I needed to keep
busy." Among her chores at Desert Mountain were tidying up the
driving range and taking care of the golf carts.
Estill's experience at the gas station was even more varied, as
she worked the cash register, stocked the shelves with junk food,
emptied the garbage cans, filled up the washer fluid and exchanged
the occasional propane tank. "Some players thought I went off the
deep end," says the 41-year-old Estill, whose only career victory
came in 1991, her rookie year. "Everyone wanted to know if I was
scared, but I never had to use the panic button. I live in a good
neighborhood. The customers pull up in their Mercedes and buy
cigarettes and tell stories. I worked in the evening, and the
people were lonely and they loved to talk."
Estill says she took the job as much for the human interaction as
the money. (In previous off-seasons she has worked at the Gap and
as a framer for a construction company.) Fruhwirth was also seeking
a wider experience than simply hitting balls at a lonely driving
range. "Coming from my background as a golfer, I've never had a
real job," says Fruhwirth, 35, who has one win in 12 seasons on
tour. "I've been self-employed, and it's not the real world. It was
an experience to work with high school kids and with housewives.
Going through a divorce [in 2003] and getting older made me realize
that golf's not everything. It doesn't define who I am."
At Pier 1 she did everything from unloading boxes off trucks to
working the register and setting up displays. The latter was her
favorite task, but her appreciation for Pier 1's housewares and
knick-knacks meant Fruhwirth wouldn't get rich working there. "I
got 20% off as an employee and still spent close to $2,000 since
November," she says.
If only her game were as tidy as her home. At Tucson she shot
74-76 and missed the cut. Says Fruhwirth, "At least this is the
time of year when you can say, Hey, there's another tournament next
Estill, who will make her season debut at next month's Office
Depot Championship, feels more urgency. "There's no room for a
slump anymore," she says. "You don't have any time to make it up."
Despite the disgruntlement of some in the rank-and-file, it wasn't
all gloom and doom at the Welch's/Fry's, though a thunderstorm
delayed last Saturday's tee times by an hour and a half and
rendered Dell Urich soft and defenseless. The game's most enigmatic
talent, Laura Davies, announced she was ready for "a big year" and
then tied for fifth, a week after winning in Australia. At 40,
Davies claims to be enjoying the best stretch of putting in her
career, and the LPGA's home run queen is now 15 to 20 yards longer
off the tee, thanks to a new ball and driver. (On her third hole of
the season, Davies bashed a 347-yard drive.) Strong showings were
also put in by three players who have been making noise about
trying to end Sorenstam's supremacy: Park (tie for second), who
stormed into contention with a sparkling 61 on Saturday; Se Ri Pak
(tie for eighth); and Karrie Webb (18th), who showed up in the best
physical condition of her career. And for all the focus on
14-year-old Michelle Wie, there is another, more polished teenager
to watch out for. In her third event as a pro, 17-year-old Aree
Song tied for fifth--not bad considering she hadn't played a
tournament of any kind since November.
This week the LPGA will enjoy even more buzz. Sorenstam and Wie
make their season debuts, gearing up for the first major of the
year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which is already upon us,
beginning on March 25. Not that everyone is looking forward to it.
"Personally, I don't feel the first major is a fair test," says
Dina Ammaccapane. "To have only two events and then to go right
into a major doesn't feel right."
Even with the new year under way, Fruhwirth, too, seemed stuck in
the off-season. After her dispiriting missed cut she said she was
going to indulge in some "retail therapy" around Tucson on
Saturday. Where was she going to shop? Pier 1, she admitted
sheepishly. "The one here is a nice store, lots of square footage,"
she said. "And there are some nice candles on sale. What can I say?
After four months I guess it's tough to break certain habits."