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With eyes elsewhere, 3 have view from top

The Baltimore Sun

There were only two recognizable blips on the radar screen heading into yesterday's opening round of the 53rd LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace. They belonged to three-time champion Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie.

As expected, there are now a lot more blips on the screen.

Though Sorenstam and Wie continued to get their share of attention, three lesser-known players got their share of the lead.

Veteran Kim Saiki-Maloney was the first in the field to shoot a 5-under-par 67, followed by 2005 U.S. Women's Open champion Birdie Kim of South Korea and Angela Park, the tour's leading rookie this year.

Four others -- former champions Karrie Webb of Australia and Laura Davies of England, 2007 Kraft Nabisco champion Morgan Pressel, as well as Stacy Prammanasudh -- were at 4-under 68.

Sorenstam, who won this tournament three straight years beginning in 2003, shot a 2-under 70 in her second tournament back since being diagnosed in April with neck and back injuries. Wie, who withdrew from Sorenstam's tournament last week in South Carolina because of a reported wrist injury, shot 1-over 73.

Those without a history of winning majors, or anything else for that matter, seemed undaunted.

"No matter what, doesn't matter which round you're on, the tournament is not over until you make the last putt," said Park, 19, who was born in Brazil to Korean parents and moved to California when she was 8. "I realized that last week on the last day. If I would have shot 2-under, I would have been in contention for a playoff [instead of tying for sixth]."

Said Saiki-Maloney, who at 41 is looking for her first win since 2004 and only her second in 15 years on the tour: "Every day I step out there I know I have the ability to have four or seven birdies a round, or even more. You just have to be patient and keep believing in your game."

Webb put herself in position to win her seventh major championship, her second LPGA Championship and her 36th overall title in 12 years on tour. It comes a year after Webb watched as Se Ri Pak nearly holed out for eagle with a 4-iron from a shade over 200 yards and then tapped in for birdie in sudden death to win this tournament.

"It wasn't something that mentally disturbed me for the rest of the year," said Webb, 32, who won five tournaments last year to resurrect her Hall of Fame career. "I think maybe if I had lost that playoff, hit a bad shot to cause me to lose, that would have been more disappointing than losing to a shot like that."

Nor did it bother Webb that she was among several big-name players to come into this week barely noticed. It was partly because of the buzz generated by the pre-tournament flap between Sorenstam and Wie, but mostly due to Webb's performance this season.

Since finishing third in the season-opening event in Hawaii, Webb has only one top 10.

"I know how well I'd been swinging it, and it was just a matter of trying to get some putts to go in and feel confident there," Webb said. "Actually today was probably the poorest I've swung it in months. I'm really happy to be here at 4-under and happy to be under the radar."

So too was Pressel, the only LPGA player with a chance to win the Grand Slam this year. Yesterday marked the first time Pressel had broken 70 in 10 rounds, the result of playing with new clubs after the old ones were stolen after she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship two months ago.

"I was pretty devastated when I lost them," said Pressel, who recently turned 19. "I tried to look at it as I change clubs all the time, so it was kind of a forced change. I'm hitting it really well this week. I can definitely tell the difference and I'm happy with it."

Sorenstam was also pleased with her round, the first time she has gone under par since coming back for own tournament, the Ginn Tribute, outside Charleston, S.C. Still lacking strength off the tee -- she estimates having lost about 25 yards in distance -- Sorenstam admitted to tiring late in the round.

"But this is far better than I expected," she said.

Wie didn't know what to expect. After withdrawing last week while shooting 14-over par through 16 holes, Wie had reportedly been spraying her shots in practice. She overcame a shaky start of 4-over through six holes yesterday with some uncharacteristically clutch putting.

"I guess it's a work in progress, it's definitely not where I want to be," said Wie, who didn't take her driver out of the bag. "I hit some great shots out there today. I'm going to build on that. I'm definitely not 100 percent right, but I'm going to work on it. Hopefully tomorrow is going to be a better day."

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