The Asahi Ryokuken International Championship golf tournament is living up to the international part of its name.
Most of the favorites in the second annual LPGA Tour event, which begins today at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club in Edgefield County, S.C., are from outside the United States. That includes four of the top 10 players off the current tour money list.
If an international player wins the $1.25 million tournament, it would be in keeping with the short history of this Edgefield County, S.C., event. When Tina Fischer won in September, she became the first German to win on the LPGA Tour.
Heading the field in the 72-hole event is leading money winner Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, who has victories in three of her seven starts this season, including last week's Aerus Electrolux USA Championship in Franklin, Tenn. The other non-Americans in the top 10 on the money list are Korea's Grace Park (sixth), Sweden's Liselotte Neumann (ninth) and Korea's Hee-Won Han (10th).
Cristie Kerr is the only American playing this week who ranks in the top 10 on the money list.
The U.S. stars skipping this event are Juli Inkster (No. 2 on the money list), Laura Diaz (No. 3) and Kelly Robbins (No. 7). Inkster and Diaz each have won an event this season.
The tournament will make LPGA history today by breaking an age barrier. This will be the first time two golfers under age 16 will tee it up in the 52-year history of the organization. They are 12-year-old Michelle Wie of Hawaii and 15-year-old Shinobu Moromizato of Japan. Both are playing on sponsor exemptions.
Wie became the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA Tour event when she did so in the season-opening Takefuji Classic in Hawaii. She shot 74-72 to miss the cut by two shots. This is Moromizato's first LPGA Tour appearance.
"They're getting younger and younger; it makes me feel old," said the 31-year-old Sorenstam, who played with Moromizato in Wednesday's pro-am. "Junior golf has come such a long way. I was 12 when I started playing golf. It's impressive. They're the future of women's golf. We have a lot to look forward to."
As has been the case for the past 14 months, during which the Swede has won 11 of her 34 career victories, Sorenstam will be the main focus of attention today.
Sorenstam, the world's No. 1-ranked player, finished tied for fourth at Mount Vintage last year, two shots behind Fischer.
"I come here with a lot of confidence," said Sorenstam, who shot a final-round 64 on Sunday to win in Tennessee. "I'm playing well right now. I still have to hit the shots and make the putts. We'll see what happens."
"She's the No. 1 player right now, there's no doubt about it," Fischer said of Sorenstam. "She's very amazing. She has the desire to win and she does it. She's the most admirable player we have. I think she's an absolute superstar."
Like Jack Nicklaus in his prime and Tiger Woods today on the PGA Tour, Sorenstam is the player to beat every time she tees it up on this tour. Not that any of the other 143 players in the field are conceding her first place, which will pay $187,500.
"There are a ton of good players out here," said Dodie Mazzuca. "Any week, it could be anybody. It's just whoever is on their game."
Tournament officials and the golfers are hoping dry conditions continue. The past two LPGA Tour events have been plagued by bad weather.
"They've been pretty iffy," Fischer said. "We've had a lot of rain, and wind and some cold. We're hoping to have the perfect weather this week."
Last year, when the Asahi Ryokuken International Championship was played in September, rain forced the cancellation of one round, reducing the event to 54 holes.
"The golf course is in terrific shape, and it would be great to have four days of good weather," said LPGA Tour official Janet Lindsay.
Dry conditions are forecast through Friday. There is a chance of rain Saturday.
Asahi Ryokuken Inc., is a health food company whose main product in Japan is Ryokko Aojiru, a supplement drink made of green barley leaves.
Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.
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