Organizers point to a strong field

JOHN HERBERT -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

The absence of one star player and the possibility of another withdrawing doesn't discourage Canadian Women's Open organizers, who say they have a strong field and predict record crowds next week.

U.S. superstar Juli Inkster withdrew this week, citing fatigue.

Korean star Se Ri Pak pulled out of the British Open before yesterday's second round complaining of a strained neck and her status for the London tournament is in question.

The $1.7-million tournament begins Thursday at the London Hunt and Country Club.

Royal Canadian Golf Association officials were informed by Inkster's agent that the 46-year-old American, a 30-time winner on the LPGA Tour, was tiring from the grind of playing in France last week in the Evian Masters and the British Open in England. She will be heading home to San Jose next week for a rest.

Inkster leads the British Open heading into today's third round.

Yesterday, the Hunt Club had all the sounds and signs of a course with a major championship just around the corner.

Members -- many bringing guests -- took the opportunity to play the tournament-ready course before it closes today at 3 p.m.

Finishing touches were being made to the bleachers, private suites and tents for spectators and private groups. Scoreboards were being installed and security fencing set in place for crowd control.

Meanwhile, the RCGA said yesterday afternoon it has not been informed Pak's injury will prevent her from competing in London.

Pak, a five-time major winner who returned to form this year to capture the McDonald's LPGA Championship, has been dogged by neck, shoulder, lower back and finger injuries during the last year.

"At this point, we expect her here," said Anthony Alfred of the RCGA.

Pak and Inkster were the headliners in the London Hunt field.

But their departure and the fact Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Karrie Webb aren't coming doesn't diminish the field, said RCGA tournament director Sean Van Kesteren.

"We have a great field given the schedule (the week following tournaments in England and France) and the legitimate reasons some of those players are not coming," Van Kesteren said. "Annika has her event and Paula is defending in Japan. We understand that."

Van Kesteren said he does not expect further stars to withdraw.

"I've spoken to them recently," he said.

Van Kesteren said the field is strong with young stars such as Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, Cristie Kerr, Natalie Gulbis, Mi Hyun Kim and accomplished players such as Lorie Kane, Meg Mallon, Birdie Kim, Pat Hurst, Jennifer Rosales, Beth Daniel and Laura Diaz.

Also entered is defending champion Meena Lee.

Van Kesteren said he wouldn't be surprised if attendance tops 60,000.

Last year's Open in Halifax drew 53,000 spectators and the record one-day attendance mark of 15,000 was set in 2003 in Vancouver on the final day.

"London is the right market, we have the right golf course, we've got parking right on the course and the tickets are reasonable," Van Kesteren said.

"This is an awesome facility."

He said holding a tournament in a market not saturated by pro sports is another important factor and with good weather, records fall.

"Our sales centre has been busy," he said. "Anywhere we go in London -- and I'm wearing an RCGA shirt -- people are asking about the tournament. It seems people know. I think we'll get some strong support."

Meanwhile, the RCGA yesterday announced the full field for the tournament, which will include 16 Canadian players.

The Canadian contingent, including national amateur champion Laura Matthews of Essex, will be joined by 33 of the top 50 players on the current LPGA Tour money list, including five of the top 10.

Those five are Mi Hyun Kim (fourth), Lincicome (seventh), Jeong Jan (eighth), Seon-Hwa Lee (ninth) and Hurst (10th).

Veteran LPGA players coming include Brandie Burton, who won the DuMaurier Classic at London Hunt in 1993, and Michelle McGann, a fan favourite here in 1993.

McGann has a local connection, having received hospital treatment in London for diabetes as a teenager. Known for her stunning headgear, McGann has won seven times, but not since 1997.

Van Kesteren, who works for the RCGA, and London Hunt members Doug Alexander and Susan Holliday have been planning for this tournament since last October.

At the time, the tournament was about to fold after losing the Bank of Montreal as its title sponsor.

CN and the Hunt club entered at the 11th hour.

jherbert@lfpress.com


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