ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Blessedly, the LPGA these days is (start ital) not (end ital) a place where a rogue caddie feuds publicly with a controversially erstwhile megastar.
The LPGA (start ital.) is (end ital.) a place blessed to have a dominant player named Yani, whose monstrous future is now, and a budding phenom named Lexi, whose professional future has no horizon.
Fifty-nine of the best women golfers in the world convocated in Florida last week for the season-ending CME Corp Titleholders, which paid an eye-widening $500,000 to little-known winner, Hee Young Park.
That number – 59 – is never lost on anybody who pays any attention to women’s golf. It’s the watershed score Annika Sorenstam posted 10 years ago at the Standard Register Ping in Phoenix. And it is arguably the best round ever played by a female.
Annika is gone from the competitive scene now, working and raising a family. Her immediate successor, Lorena Ochoa, is radiantly pregnant in her native Mexico and also retired, for the time being, from the LPGA.
So 22-year-old Yani Tseng, of Taiwan, and 16-year-old Lexi Thompson, of Coral Springs, Fla., are currently the top hit-getters if you Google women’s golf.
That may not be fair to major championship winners Suzann Pettersen, Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr, to name a few. But it’s the reality of the moment.
(And, by he way, I’ve got a dozen brand-new premium golf balls if you can tell me the exact date that Michelle Wie’s name dropped out of this conversation. In her defense, she did post a top 10 at CME.)
Anyway, when the LPGA bosses trotted Lexi and Yani out in front of the media early last week the contrasts and comparisons were compelling.
Lexi, recently profiled flatteringly in Sports Illustrated, said things like, “I love traveling around doing TV shows. Throughout this whole journey, it has been a blast.”
To put the advent of Lexi Thompson in perspective: She was 2 years old when Tiger Woods won his first major championship.
Tseng, who lives in Sorenstam’s old house, just 40 minutes from the Grand Cypress venue for the Titleholders, laughed a lot and talked about hosting her mother, brother and two cousins all week at her Lake Nona home.
“It was a little too noisy in the morning,” she said with a big smile. “I woke up too early because they were running around. Everybody. It was like a party every day at my house. So it was fun.”
After a sizzling Saturday 66 that jumped Tseng back into contention, Tseng said she “enjoyed” winning a pre-round bet with her caddie that she would shoot 3 under or better in the third round.
Tseng arrived In Orlando with 11 worldwide victories this year, a number even more remarkable when you consider the economy-dented LPGA schedule contained just 13 U.S. events in 2011, down from 24 in 2008.
Proud and powerful world No. 2 Pettersen didn’t hesitate to give Tseng her props.
“You can’t do anything but applaud what she’s done,” Pettersen said of Tseng’s season. “It makes me work even harder. I don’t feel that there’s a huge gap between me and Yani.”
Women’s golf will benefit in 2012 from a challenge to Tseng’s current supremacy.
And there are people in high LPGA places rooting for that challenge to come from Thompson, who aside from being gifted at golf, is photogenic and American.
“Think about Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman in their primes, think about the young Tiger Woods; It was awe-inspiring to watch them swing the club,” respected instructor Jim McLean told SI about his star pupil. “That’s Lexi. You stand near her on the tee and you feel the power. The sound of the ball being compressed – wow!”
For her part, Thompson still hasn’t completely wised up to the fact that an LPGA career is more work than play. And that’s nice to see.
Her older brothers are both accomplished players. Nicholas is tour pro. Curtis plays on the varsity at LSU. Growing up and tagging along was, and still is a “blast” for Lexi.
“It is never a chore or a duty,” she says. “I just love going out and practicing. We live on a golf course so that helps. I started with golf because I saw my brothers play. I was always watching them. It was my life.”
At the Titleholders, Thompson tripped early with a triple-bogey seven on the third hole of the first round. But she recovered nicely for an opening 71, 1-under par. Tseng also started slowly but birdied three of her last five holes for a Thursday 70.
Thompson followed with a Friday 75 and a Saturday 76 to eventually finish outside the top 30. Chalk one up for the learning curve.
Tseng, meanwhile, tied for sixth after a Sunday 74.
The scary part for Tseng is she didn’t back away when asked if she thought she could win more than 11 events in another season.
“I want to set that for my goal for next year,” she said. “But it’s not easy.”
Especially if Lexi Thompson becomes the player that people, other than her teacher, compare to Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.