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Kingsmill Championship is set for a big showdown between Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis

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Sports,Golf,Kevin Dunleavy

The return of the LPGA to Kingsmill last September culminated in spectacular fashion with an unprecedented nine-hole playoff between former major champions Jiyai Shin of South Korea and Paula Creamer of the U.S., with the players outlasting the Sunday sun and Shin eventually emerging Monday morning.

Eight months later, as the Kingsmill Championship takes a more familiar spring spot on the LPGA calendar, teeing off Thursday, there is the potential for another intriguing duel between players from South Korea and the U.S.

Ranked No. 1 in the world, Inbee Park of Seoul has won three tournaments this year, including her second major, the Kraft Nabisco. Ranked No. 2, Ohio native Stacy Lewis won twice this season to reach No. 1 for the first time in her career before Park overtook her.

Park, 24, and Lewis, 28, have been the LPGA's best players since this time last year. While Park had a run of 10 straight top-10 finishes which began last spring and included a pair of victories, Lewis has won six times in the last 13 months.

Kingsmill Championship
When » Thursday-Sunday
Where » Kingsmill Resort,
River Course, James City, Va.
TV » Golf Channel

The only time they squared off came in the Evian Masters in July, where they opened the final round tied for the lead and in the same twosome. With three straight birdies, Park rallied past Lewis.

It was a return to the form Park flashed in 2008, when at 19, she became the youngest player to capture the U.S. Women's Open. After going nearly four years without a win, Park has won five times since July. Tuesday at Kingsmill, Park told reporters that getting control of her driver has been key.

"I was really struggling with my driver, couldn't really hit a tee shot. I couldn't keep it in the fairway," Park said. "Just getting a lot of lessons from all the other players out here who are much better than me, I've learned a lot in the last few years and finally I'm here."

Park said she also has benefited from work with her coach and fianc?, Gi Hyeob Nam. After failing to crack the top 100 in driving accuracy, bottoming out a 59.6 percent in 2009, Park has been in the top 50 the last two seasons, hitting 70.4 percent this year.

Park was one of the many international players who didn't make the trip to Kingsmill in September. The tournament, played after a bye week in the schedule and before the Women's British Open, was missing eight of the top 12 on the LPGA money list. But this year, with a slot between events in Texas and Alabama, 48 of the top 50 money-winners are in the field.

Lewis, a four-time All-American at Arkansas, played at Kingsmill last year but never seriously challenged, finishing tied for ninth. Her victory in March at the LPGA Founders Cup catapulted her to No. 1 past Yani Tseng, who had held the top spot for 109 weeks. A month later, Park ascended to the top spot. She strengthened her hold with a win last week at the North Texas Shootout.

"That's been my dream since I started playing golf, to be the best in the world, and I finally reached it," Park said. "I think it could be some very heavy spot to be in. You can put a lot of pressure on yourself when you're No. 1. But I'm just trying to think that's just a number."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jiyai Shin

When Shin outlasted Paula Creamer in an historic nine-hole playoff, it was her first win in more than a year following wrist surgery. The 25-year-old has since won twice on different continents, capturing LPGA events in England and Australia.

Lexi Thompson

The 6-foot, 18-year-old was near the lead after shooting 67-66 in the first two rounds last year at Kingsmill, but faded in the final two rounds to finish tied for 14th. She became the youngest ever to win on the LPGA (16 years, seven months) at the Navistar in 2011.

Suzann Pettersen

Ranked No. 3, the 32-year-old is one of women's golf's most consistent winners, capturing two titles each in the last two years and one this season. In 2007, she became the first player from Norway to win on the LPGA by triumphing at Kingsmill.

Yani Tseng

After opening the year at No. 1, she has tumbled to No. 10. Tseng, 24, has 15 LPGA wins, but hasn't captured one since March 2012. Tseng missed the event last year, as did former Kingsmill winners Pettersen, Karrie Webb (2006), and Se-Ri Pak (2004).

Paula Creamer

Last year's runner-up enters in solid form, finishing in the top 20 in her last six events. Creamer has nine LPGA wins, but none since capturing the 2010 U.S. Women's Open. She has been in position several times, but has been betrayed by her putter.

- Kevin Dunleavy

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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