February 16, 2008

Real Competition Here

Unlike the PGA Tour, new young LPGA stars have stepped up to meet the challenge and now that Annika's really back it's the best theater in sports

KAHUKU, Hawaii -- Reason No. 367 why, Tiger Woods aside, the LPGA is more fun to watch than the PGA Tour: There is competition. As the main character in Dan Jenkins' soon-to-be-released novel "The Franchise Babe" says by way of explaining why he decided to cover the LPGA: "You might say I'd grown tired of writing, 'Tiger Woods' and then a comma."

That was the case for about five years out here when LPGA game stories began, "Annika Sorenstam" and then a comma. From 2001 through 2005, a stretch in which Sorenstam won 43 of 104 LPGA events, I pretty much wrote two stories: Either "Sorenstam wins" or "Sorenstam should have won." That's changed, and for the better.

Last year, Lorena Ochoa knocked Sorenstam from the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings by winning eight times, including the Ricoh Women's British Open. But the accomplishment was tarnished just a wee bit by the fact Sorenstam was sidelined for two months with a ruptured disc in her neck and hasn't really played at full strength since mid 2006, when the neck first started bothering her.

But a healthy and hungry Sorenstam won the season-open SBS Open on Saturday at the Turtle Bay Resort, making birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 to hold off Laura Diaz, Jane Park and Russy Gulyanamitta by two strokes. And while Ochoa wasn't in the field the event wasn't diminished in quite the same way a PGA Tour event is when Woods, Phil Mickelson or both stay home.

This was a vintage Sorenstam performance. She hit every fairway in Saturday's final round and missed just one green as she wore down the opposition then dismissed them with her late birdies. But what made it special was how many players ran with her.

The names of Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Suzann Pettersen all appeared on the leader board during the final round, joined by an extremely talented group of young players led by Jane Park (21) Angela Park (19), Momoko Ueda (21), Yani Tseng (18) and In-Kyung Kim (19).

One of the differences between the LPGA Tour and the PGA Tour is that the young players are holding up their end of the bargain. The average age of a winner last year on the LPGA was 26.65. Ochoa and Pettersen are both 26, Creamer is 21, Morgan Pressel is 19, Brittany Lincicome 22 and Natalie Gulbis is 25. They have all one. Who is the last highly touted young stud on the PGA Tour to live up to his press clips? Tiger Woods? Surely not Sergio Garcia. Or Charles Howell III.

Here's what has the potential to make this LPGA season especially exciting. What if Sorenstam returns to full form? What if she is in contention week after week? And what if Ochoa continues to perform like the player who has won 14 times in two years, and Pettersen builds on her five-win season of a year ago? What if all those kids keep getting better, and what if Cristie Kerr is just reaching her peak years?

Sort of sounds like the days when Jack Nicklaus had to fend off Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, and Johnny Miller et al to win majors. There is no question that the No. 144 in a PGA Tour field for Woods is better than the No. 144 Nicklaus had to face, but I'm not so sure No. 10 in the field for Tiger is better than the No. 10 Jack faced. Simply put, the competitive chemistry on the LPGA Tour right now is more interesting than the competitive chemistry in the PGA Tour.

That said, there have been few things in all of sports more entertaining than watching a Tiger Woods victory. From where I sit, doesn't matter if it is one stroke or 15 strokes, it is fun watch the guy play. Greatness is like a fine wine; it should be savored, sipped slowly, enjoyed.

That why is was so much fun to watch Sorenstam return at the SBS Open as Annika, the one-word superstar who emerged from the 2003 Colonial Invitational having captured the hearts of many and having earned the respect of all. Injury, distraction -- both personal and professional and diminished desire had eroded her skills. But the clear message she shouted with her golf clubs at Turtle Bay was that she is ready, for one year at least, to make another run at the top. What makes it more fun is that the talent level of the LPGA would allow it to be a solo run.

Winning is not easy, even if you have won a lot. And doubt is a demon that visits everyone, no matter how accomplished. Sorenstam picked up career victory No. 69 in September 2006. She took a lead into the final round on Saturday at the SBS Open for the first time since October 2006, when Ochoa chased her down at the Samsung World Championship. But she got the job done despite a half-dozen players who hung with her to the very end.

That was a good way to start the LPGA season. But the real fin will begin at the HSBC Champions in Singapore in two weeks. That'll be the first time Annika and Lorena will be in the same field. And so will Suzann and Morgan and Cristie and Paula. Hey, let's go see the men play. I hear Frank Lickliter is in the field. These girls are good.