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Cristie Kerr, Michelle Wie are optimistic at Mission Hills

They arrive at historic course knowing Yani Tseng is the favorite but pleased with their results so far this year and hoping for the top spot at Kraft Nabisco Championship.

March 30, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Cristie Kerr watches her tee shot on the third hole during the Dinah Shore Charity Pro-Am on Wednesday. Kerr will be looking to win her first LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship this weekend at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.
Cristie Kerr watches her tee shot on the third hole during the Dinah Shore… (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)

Cristie Kerr is a big-game player.

The 33-year-old is a two-time major winner on the LPGA circuit and she is the highest-ranked American at No. 3 in the world in the Rolex Rankings.

Michelle Wie wants to be a big-game player.

The 21-year-old hasn't won any of the four women's majors but has played well enough to be ranked ninth in the world. Wie has accomplished this while continuing her studies at Stanford University despite a full pro schedule.

The season's first major, the $2-million Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, begins Thursday, and certainly the defending champion and No. 1 player in the world, Yani Tseng, is considered the favorite.

Tseng, from Taiwan, said she got goose bumps when she went by the 18th hole, home to the famous "Champion's Leap" in which the tournament's winner jumps into the water next to the green.

"I see my name on the Walk of Champions and it is so exciting," Tseng said. "That brings me lots of good memories."

Kerr and Wie, despite their high rankings and overall success, are still waiting to see their names on that wall.

Kerr has won a U.S. Open and an LPGA Championship, both in the last four years, but her best showing in the Kraft, which is celebrating its 40th year, was a tie for second place in 2009.

Wie, who first played here as a 13-year-old in 2003, finished fourth a year later and had her best finish, a tie for third, in 2006.

But both women have arrived at this historic course pleased with their results so far this year and optimistic about the week ahead.

Kerr has three top-10s, including a tie for third last week at the Kia Classic at Industry Hills Golf Club at Pacific Palms. She had been tied for 56th after the first round but by Sunday, when she shot a seven-under 66, Kerr said she had found a rhythm that she hopes continues this week.

"I've always loved this golf course," Kerr said Wednesday of Mission Hills, "and I've had a lot of close calls here. Hopefully at the end of the week it will add up to some good things."

Kerr, who said she was heckled about her weight when she was in junior high to the point in which she was called "fatso," credited her fast start this year to losing 12 pounds in the off-season.

"I didn't have any wine or alcohol for about six weeks," she said. "I trained twice a day, I got all of the processed carbohydrates, white bread and white flour and all that kind of stuff out of my diet and I feel great."

Wie has two top-10 finishes in her three starts this season, including a seventh-place tie at the Kia Classic, after which Wie said her putter let her down. But after Wednesday's pro-am, she pronounced herself as "feeling great."

To have a history with this Mission Hills course makes Wie smile. In 2003, Wie shot a third-round 66, a score that put her into the final group for the final round. The superb effort brought her worldwide fame and expectations that she would be routinely winning majors.

That hasn't happened. After finishing in the top 10 in seven of her first 11 majors, Wie has not been a factor in the biggest tournaments since 2006.

"A couple people already asked me how was it when you were 13 and playing here," Wie said. "It's so long ago, it's crazy thinking about it. But I have so many good memories here."

Wie said her early success might have been deceptive. Winning majors immediately, is not, she said, "a natural step. It's one of those things you dream about, work toward and over the past off-season that's really what I've been working on. Win tournaments, win majors. That's the motivation for me to go out there and practice."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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