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LPGA opens with top field

OCALA, Florida (AFP) ― Top-ranked Park In-bee of South Korea and second-ranked New Zealand teen Lydia Ko will try to follow stellar 2014 campaigns with hot 2015 starts when the LPGA season begins Wednesday.

The inaugural $1.5 million Coates Championship in suburban Orlando, Florida, marks the opening of a 33-event global calendar offering $61.6 million in prize money.

The opening tournament features a field of 120 with a Wednesday to Saturday schedule to avoid a final-day conflict with American football’s Super Bowl spectacular.

Park, the 2013 Player of the Year, and Ko, whose three wins last year included the season-ending Tour Championship, will be joined by 91 of the world’s 100 top-ranked players, including 2014 Player of the Year Stacy Lewis, fellow American stars Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson, Norway’s Suzann Pettersen and South Korea’s Ryu So-yeon.

“I feel really comfortable coming into the 2015 season,” Park said.

“It was a very short offseason, but I feel like I did the things that I really needed to get done, worked on the swing, worked on rehab, my body, worked on a little bit of few things here and there.”

Park expects Lewis and Wie to be top rivals again, but is very aware of a group of talented rising young players.

“Michelle played really good last year and obviously Stacy is playing steady for last few years and we’ve been competing for pretty much everything for the last few years together,” Park said.

“If it’s like that this year that will be a really great season, but I think there are a lot of new strong players coming up to play.”

The tournament will also mark the LPGA debut for 16 rookies trying to push their way into tour stardom starting at the Golden Ocala Golf Club, which features eight tribute holes to other famed legendary courses, including Augusta National and the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“The Coates Golf Championship has one of the strongest playing fields the LPGA will see all season,” said event director Lenny Francoeur.

Cheyenne Woods, the 24-year-old niece of 14-time men’s major winner Tiger Woods, begins her first LPGA campaign this week.

She won her 2014 opener at the Volvik Ladies Masters on the Ladies European Tour.

“It feels great to officially finally be a member.

“I’ve had the privilege to play a few LPGA events in the past, but to now be a member feels a little different, so I’m excited for this week and I’m excited to finally tee it up,” Woods said.

LPGA stars begin their globetrotting next month with the Bahamas LPGA Classic, the Women’s Australian Open and the LPGA Thailand event plus the HSBC Women’s Championship in March in Singapore.