Rosie Jones' nearly 17-month reign as defending champion of the $1 million Asahi Ryokuken International Championship golf tournament isn't the longest of her career. Not by a long shot.
Jones begins defense of her title today in the tournament that was played in May 2003, then moved to a fall date this year.
A 13-time winner on the LPGA Tour, Jones never got the chance to defend her titles in the 1995 Pinewild Women's Championship in Pinehurst, N.C., or the 2001 Kathy Ireland Championship in Austin, Texas. They were discontinued the following year.
"I'm still the defending champ if they ever come back," Jones said. "I'm an infinite defender."
After debuting with a fall date in 2001 at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club in Edgefield County, the Asahi Ryokuken was played in May in 2002 and 2003.
"It's weird that we're here at a different time of year," Jones said.
It's hard to compare how Mount Vintage played in its fall date to its spring dates. The fall tournament in 2001 was shortened to 54 holes because of rain, and Tina Fischer won it with a 10-under-par total. In the spring dates, Jones and 2002 champion Janice Moodie both shot 15-under for the 72 holes.
The tournament record could fall this week because the greens still have moisture from heavy rains two weeks ago associated with Hurricane Jeanne.
"They are very receptive," Jones said. "The ball is spinning and you're going to see a lot of players going at the pins. I would say the scores would be pretty good."
Much has happened to the 44-year-old Jones since she won here May 12, 2003. She hasn't won since, and barring a strong finish this season, she won't finish in the top-10 on the money list for the first time since 1998. Jones is currently 23rd.
Also, earlier this year Jones announced this would be her final season as a full-time player. She's moving to semi-retirement because of a chronic neck problem that will eventually need surgery.
"It feels good right now; every week it seems to get better, but I still have my ups and downs," Jones said. "But if (I) play golf, it's only going to further injure it."
There are 144 players in the field, including eight of the top 12 off the money list.
Annika Sorenstam and Meg Mallon, the top two players on the money list, are skipping the event, but No. 3 Lorena Ochoa, No. 4 Grace Park, No. 5 Cristie Kerr, No. 6 Mi Hyun Kim, No. 7 Karen Stupples, No. 10 Jennifer Rosales, No. 11 Karrie Webb and No. 12 Christina Kim are playing for the $150,000 first-place money.
Kerr is a three-time winner this season; Ochoa and Stupples have each won twice.
The only local player is 14-year Alina Lee, of Evans, one of the top juniors in the country. Lee, who is playing in her first LPGA Tour event, goes off in the final group today on No. 10, at 1:50 p.m.
At least Lee knows the course. She has played numerous practice rounds at Mount Vintage in the past two weeks.
"I'll probably be nervous on the first tee; you're always are on the first tee on the first day," Lee said. "But I usually don't do so bad when I'm nervous."
While Lee can freewheel it this week, there is much on the line for some of the pros. As the final full-field event of the season, this tournament will determine which players are eligible for the tour in 2005. The top 90 on the money list will be exempt for next year.
"There are a lot of players out there really hustling to make a good check," Jones said. "This is their last chance. Everybody from 85 to 110 on the money list is jockeying for that free card next year. There is probably a lot of emotion out there right now."
Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851 or email@example.com.
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