With four of her top five closest competitors taking the week off, Cristie Kerr is poised to once again take over the No. 1 ranking in women's golf.
Keeping it might be a bigger challenge.
Kerr, Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato have taken turns in the top spot in what has been a wide open race this year. That's in contrast to past seasons when Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, both retired, dominated with little or no threat.
"It's been crazy and it's been fun," Kerr said Wednesday as she prepared for the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge. "It's been kind of like a roller-coaster ride. It's a good time for us."
Kerr missed a chance to reclaim the top spot last week when she struggled over the final 22 holes of the Navistar LPGA Classic and ended up tying for third. Had she won, Kerr would have moved to No. 1. Instead, she jumped past Shin into second place behind Miyazato.
Miyazato, who has held the No. 1 ranking for eight straight weeks, tied for 27th at the Navistar Classic but is skipping this week's Northern California stop on the tour. Shin, Suzann Pettersen and Yani Tseng also are bypassing the tournament.
That means Kerr can regain the No. 1 ranking for third time this year with a win. Even a top-five finish will likely push her past Miyazato.
That would give Kerr — owner of 14 LPGA career titles — a shot at becoming the first American to end the season No. 1 since the rankings began in 2006. Beth Daniel (1994) is the last American to earn player of the year honors on the tour.
"The more we can get the word out that the LPGA is exciting and it's something to watch and there is an American, me, now up there in the mix to be No. 1 in the world, I think we'll get a lot more fans, a lot more people interested," said Kerr, who celebrated her 33rd birthday Tuesday.
"It's been a long time since Americans had the ability to end the year No. 1, so I think that you've just got to go for it. We need to grow our fan base in the United States again, so that we can grow and have more tournaments and more sponsors here. When I first came on tour we had over 40 tournaments. Now we have 26. It's quite a change in 10 years."
Kerr won this tournament in 2002 for her first career LPGA title. Though she's been unable to repeat that success here, Kerr felt it was important to be at this year's event, which could be the tour's final appearance in the Bay Area. CVS has announced it will not extend its agreement with the LPGA as the tournament's primary sponsor, leaving an already cash-strapped event looking for a new backer.
If they can't find one, the tournament will either be moved away from the Blackhawk Country Club or nixed altogether.
"It's not that I owe it to anybody to be here, I just thought it would be really nice for the sponsor for me to be here, especially since this was my first tournament win," Kerr said. "Maybe (I can) try and coax them into coming back."
Kerr is one of five former winners of this event playing in the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge this week, joining defending champion Sophie Gustafson, Karrie Webb (2006), Christina Kim (2004) and Hall of Famer Juli Inkster (1999, 2000), who is also the assistant captain on the 2011 U.S. Solheim Cup Team.
U.S. Open champion Paula Creamer, who grew up in nearby Pleasanton, is also in the field and will be playing in only her second tournament since undergoing surgery on her left thumb.
"It was a little bit sore today, just because of the firmer ground (on the course)," Creamer said. "But I'm feeling good. I'm doing everything that I can. I can kind of go after it a little bit more now than I was able to a couple of weeks ago."