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LPGA looking forward to teenager boost

While Meg Mallon was puttering around to win the 59th U.S. Women's Open, a tournament within the tournament unfolded.

Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer matched each other shot for shot at Orchards Golf Club. At stake: low-amateur honors, which pay $560,000 less than Mallon pocketed for her two-stroke victory over Annika Sorenstam.

Wie managed only one birdie in the final round, shooting a 73 to finish the week at 1-over par. Creamer recovered from a double bogey at No. 17 to birdie the second-toughest hole on the course and post a 72 that left her at 1-over for the week.

Ahead of the likes of Se Ri Pak, Karrie Webb, Beth Daniel, Grace Park and Juli Inkster.

"I wasn't thinking about low amateur," Wie said. "I was thinking about the trophy."

When did Wie's dream of seeing her name on the Open trophy begin to die — at least until next year?

"When someone was shooting 10-under and I was shooting 1-under," Wie said, "it disappeared."

Wie and Creamer won't be disappearing for long if the LPGA and the United States Golf Association have anything to say about it. By finishing in a tie for 13th, Wie and Creamer earned an automatic spot in the field for the 2005 Open at Cherry Hills.

"That was a huge goal of mine," said Creamer, who just finished her junior year in high school.

For Wie, her performance was vindication of the special exemption the USGA gave her into the tournament. The USGA's decision to give a free pass to a 14-year-old raised more than a few eyebrows around the LPGA, but Wie already has three top-15 finishes at major championships.

"I think it's really great for me," Wie said. "There's no more real controversy, because they know I earned it."

To be sure, neither Wie nor the USGA deserved any of the hits they took for their cozy arrangement. Wie has proved again and again that regardless of her age, she is more than qualified to take on the best players in the world on the toughest courses. And considering how much interest Wie generates, why wouldn't the USGA welcome her with open arms?

"The whole kind of purpose of the USGA is to get more people into golf," Wie said. "And I think it's really great, those young people following."

Less conspicuously than Wie, Creamer is proving she has a game that is worth testing against the best. Creamer, a 17-year-old Californian who has been honing her skills at a Florida golf academy, has finished 13th or better in her past three LPGA events. She finished in a tie for second last month at the Shoprite LPGA Classic, missing a playoff by one stroke.

"We can play," Creamer said. "We're coming. It's just a matter of time as to when we'll be out here. There's a lot of really good girls that will be coming out to women's golf."

Brittany Lincicome, the home-schooled 18-year-old from Seminole, Fla., who took the first-round lead by shooting 66, plans to turn pro later in the year. Creamer said she has another year of high school to determine whether she'll attend college or head straight for the professional ranks. Wie still has three more years of high school.

In all, 16 teenagers played in the Open.

"I think any good girl golfer out there will promote girl golf and LPGA golf," Creamer said. "It's fun to see new faces and good players coming."

The LPGA sure could use a face-lift or 10. Of the top 30 players on the latest money list, only 11 were born in America. Only four of those Americans are younger than 35: Kelly Robbins (34), Stacy Prammanasudh (24), Cristie Kerr (26) and Christina Kim (20).

Kim and Prammanasudh, as promising as they may be, have yet to win on the LPGA Tour. Robbins hasn't won since 1999 and may be closer to the end of the line than her age suggests. Sizing up all the young players , Robbins said: "They hit it far, they hit it straight. And it's exciting to watch. I'm glad I'm kind of phasing out of things in the next four or five years, I think. I won't be able to keep up with anybody."

The best American player under 40 arguably is Kerr, whose two victories this year boosts her career total to three. Given that the LPGA is an American-based tour, it desperately needs a lot more fresh young American blood. The 40-something crowd of Inkster, Mallon and Daniel can't set the standards forever.

Wie offers tantalizing possibilities for the LPGA, especially if she doesn't get sidetracked by the lure of playing on the men's tour. Even more tantalizing is the prospect of Creamer emerging as a worthy adversary of Wie. Or vice versa.

"Sure enough there is going to be some kind of rivalry sometime, sooner or later," said Wie, who was a teammate of Creamer at last month's Curtis Cup. "But we're really good friends, so right now we're just having fun and we're just playing golf."

Creamer echoes the "good friends" sentiment, adding: "On the course, I think everybody has a rivalry with everybody out there. When you win a tournament, you beat everybody, so I don't know if there's going to be an on-course rivalry."

Still, it hasn't escaped Creamer's notice how much under the radar she has stayed compared to Wie.

"It only motivates me more," Creamer said, "to practice hard."

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