We Got Next

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By JORDAN IKEDA

Rafu Sports Editor

Following a relative boom in popularity in the late 90s and early to mid-Aughts, the LPGA has taken a huge hit in popularity over the last two years—a somewhat painful reminder of just how tenuous fandom can be.

When Annika Sorenstam, the LPGA’s version of the pre-tabloid Tiger Woods, decided to call it quits in 2008, the emergence of Lorena Ochoa, equally talented, though somewhat-lacking in star power, softened the blow. Then, last season, the 28-year-old Ochoa, after 157 consecutive weeks as the world’s No. 1 player, also called it quits.

Unfortunately, this time around, there was no contingency plan.

Ayaka Kaneko (Photos courtesy of Kenny Matsui)

Instead, controversy has reigned.

The LPGA has been hemorrhaging tournaments and title sponsors over the last 24 months, partly because of the downturn in the economy and partly because of mistakes made under the leadership of former commissioner, Carolyn Bivens.

The idea to ban players who couldn’t speak English, while progressive in its thinking (to attract the casual fans, players need to be more fan-friendly and, at the very least, capable of communicating with well-heeled pro-am partners who are the major financial backing behind the Tour), was handled in such a poor manner, that it was nigh impossible to see it as anything but racial discrimination against many of the game’s best and brightest.

Following four years of controversial decisions including dropping McDonald’s as a sponsor, cutting the Tour down to 22 events, and snubbing the major networks by granting full coverage to the Golf Channel, Bivens was replaced by Michael Whan. The decision came about when the LPGA Board of Directors received a letter from a group of top players on Tour, who backed by “the majority” of the LPGA, were calling for Bivens’ resignation.

Despite apparent widespread dislike for Bivens’ tenure, few can argue against the long-ranging positives generated by her acquisition of the Duramed FUTURES Tour and subsequent move in making it the official development tour of the LPGA.

Like the minor leagues for MLB or the NBA Development League, this move all but ensures a continuous flow of promising talent into the LPGA.

This December, two young women, fresh off of finishing up their 2010 season on the FUTURES Tour, will be looking to earn their LPGA membership.

Growing up on the cold shores of New Seabury, Mass., a small pocket town of Cape Cod, Chelsea Curtis, 25, was first introduced to golf by her father, who handed her four plastic clubs and a handful of white balls when she was seven years old. Her love of the game blossomed and she was inevitably upgraded to junior golf clubs and junior clinics.

“I was immediately drawn to the game,” said Curtis who is half-Japanese. “I began to play golf more and more each summer and entered several tournaments.”

Ayaka Kaneko, 19, was also introduced to golf by her father when she was a six-year-old growing up in Tokyo. But, her father had played pro baseball for the Chunichi Dragons, and instead of focusing on golf, Kaneko followed in her father’s footsteps, taking up pitching during her time in Japan.

It wasn’t until her family moved to the warm, sandy beaches of Honolulu six years later that Kaneko discovered her penchant for golf—though her love of the game would have to wait a bit longer.

“I didn’t like golf until 2005 because I hated practicing,” Kaneko said with a laugh. “And I couldn’t deal with golf and my school work at the same time especially when I couldn’t speak English at all.”

In 2005, Kaneko was named the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association player of the year and something clicked, setting off an impressive run in tournament play: advancing to the round of eight at the 2006 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, finishing second at the 2006 Callaway Golf Junior World Golf Championship and second at the 2007 U.S. Girl’s Junior Championship, and being selected to the 2007 Rolex Junior All-American First Team.

Kaneko eventually moved to the Mainland and enrolled at Pepperdine University, joining the 10th ranked women’s team in the country.

Chelsea Curtis

Curtis’ resume is equally impressive. After becoming the 2004 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Girl’s Golf High School Champion (say that three times fast), Curtis took her talents to Georgetown University where she recorded two wins in collegiate competition. Along the way, she garnered a few other accomplishments: 2005 Massachusetts State Amateur Champion, 2005 Massachusetts Junior Champion, 2008 runner-up at the North & South Amateur Championship, and 2009 New England Women’s Amateur Champion.

“Golf has always been a big part of my life,” Curtis said. “I always saw myself playing in college, but as far as turning professional, I didn’t know if that was for me or if it was something I even wanted to do.”

Her junior year at Georgetown proved to be the turning point, as her game came together under coach Patty Post’s guidance. She improved drastically.

“I still kind of wavered with it a little bit,” Curtis said. “I didn’t want to turn professional unless I knew I could compete and do well.”

Curtis turned pro in 2009 and recently finished her second year on the FUTURES Tour ranked 34th, earning nearly $27,000. Of the 16 events she entered, she made the cut 12 times and finished in the top-10 twice, her best coming at the City of Hammond Classic in late June where she finished tied for second. Because of how well she did this year, she received an automatic invite to the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament in December.

“Recently, the mental aspect of golf has become really interesting for me, because everyone who turns professional, for the most part, can hit the ball,” said Curtis, who has worked hard to keep her body in shape as well. “It really does come down to the mental aspect of golf to who’s going to win tournaments. If you make a certain shot when you have to.”

She’s been reading books on the mental aspects of the game, including a few by sports psychologist Bob Rotella, that have helped her focus on her pre-shot routine, what she should be thinking before the shot, as well as how to recover from a bad shot and how to manage a round.

“That’s the thing about golf,” Curtis said. “I’ve been playing since I was seven-years-old, and you have to have a certain level of maturity to play the game successfully because it is really frustrating.

“It surprises me and I’m really impressed with these young girls, these teenagers that are doing so well because it takes a high level of maturity to be able to play at the level that some of these girls play at.’

At the age of 20, Kaneko seems to be the type of player Curtis is talking about. Kaneko just completed her first season on the FUTURES Tour, making 12 of 17 cuts, and earning nearly $9,000 on her way to a 61st ranking. Her best finish came at the ING New England Golf Classic where she finished tied for 15th place.

“Golf is tough,” Kaneko said, “so I try not to play it 24/7. I have to have fun in life. Sometimes I just have to take a break from golf.”

She shops with her mother, catches movies with her friends, or simply chillaxes to some music in her room. The down time has helped her keep a steady head. Kaneko believes her biggest strength is her ability to always remain calm and not get emotional on the course.

“Everyone has pressure,” she said. “You have to control your emotions, so you can have a good stroke. You have to have a strong mentality.”

Her calm under pressure has already been put to the test at the highest levels of golf. Kaneko has played in four LPGA tournaments as an amateur, including the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open, thus far the highlight of her career. She also has experience playing with and against several women that have moved on to the LPGA.

“I used to play with Yani Tseng, Mika Miyazato, and now they’re winning on the LPGA,” Kaneko said. “They definitely keep me motivated. I want to be there too. So I have to practice more and more so I can be like them.”

Which brings us back to the point about the LPGA and the merry-go-round nature of the top spot since Ochoa’s retirement. Women like Tseng and Jiyai Shin, both barely old enough to legally drink, have shared that top spot this season, and both are only a shade over a year removed from the FUTURES Tour.

“I think it’s really up for grabs,” Curtis said about the wide-open nature of the LPGA. “I think there are a few people on the LPGA right now that are starting to climb their way up and have a good chance of staying up there. But it’s definitely a good chance for me in the next few years to keep improving and start competing with that caliber of women.”

Kaneko shares Curtis’ enthusiasm.

“It gets me excited because I have a chance, everybody has a chance,” Kaneko said. “I just have to be there.”

If everything goes according to plan this December, come the beginning of the 2011 LPGA season in February, both Curtis and Kaneko will be.

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