KAHUKU, Hawaii -- With pitchers and catchers flinging the horsehide around in Florida and Arizona, and either Roger Clemens or Brian McNamee slinging horse feathers on Capitol Hill, the good folks of the LPGA gathered in Leilei's Bar at the Turtle Bay Resort to rekindle old friendships, retell old war stories and refocus on a new season. Like baseball, the former national pastime that has become a national nightmare, the LPGA has a real off-season. And that absence has made the heart grow way fonder.
The two-and-a-half months since Lorena Ochoa won $1 million at the ADT Championship to end a fascinating 2007 season in which the Mexican star surpassed Annika Sorenstam as No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings have only served to whet the appetite for whatever is next in women's golf. That story starts to unfold Thursday at Turtle Bay when the SBS Open kicks off the new season with a compelling field that includes Annika Sorenstam, who says she's fit and ready to reclaim the top spot.
But first things first. Before a shot was hit in anger there was the matter of good-natured reunions in which players took verbal shots at each other. A chief target was reigning U.S. Women's Open champion Cristie Kerr for the sizzling cover photo of her in the new Golf For Women magazine. "Six-pack abs, baby, six-pack abs," a beaming Kerr proclaimed as Kelli Kuehne, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon, and Golf Channel commentator Kay Cockerill teased her about the sexy shot. There were numerous humorous responses to Kerr's line but hey, what's said in Leilei's stays in Leilei's.
Let's just say this: One of the joys about the LPGA is that it remains in touch with its roots. It's 58-year struggle for equal footing on the publicity stage with other sports has fostered an extremely healthy us-versus-them attitude around which the players unite in a sisterly effort to get the attention they deserve. Much more than any other sport -- certainly much more than the PGA Tour -- the players hang together, joke together and project a distinct air that they are all in this together. It's a fun group.
There are a lot of ways to measure the popularity of a sport. One is how much people are talking about it. And another is how much people are writing about it. Dan Jenkins, the esteemed Golf Digest columnist who has written 10 novels, several about golf including the classic "Dead Solid Perfect", has made the LPGA the setting for his newest work, "The Franchise Babe," which comes out in May. Jenkins has never obeyed the political correctness police and there will be those in Daytona Beach offended by parts of the book, but when seventy-something legends notice your product you are doing something right.
Ochoa isn't on hand for the SBS Open. She has indicated she will play fewer than the 25 events she has averaged her first five years on the LPGA and will pick up the tour in two weeks at the HSBC Champions in Singapore. Sorenstam, on the other hand, will play five of the first six tournaments as she tries to re-establish the dominance she displayed in a staggering five-season stretch from 2001-05 in which she won 43 of 104 LPGA events. She's 37, starting her 15th season on tour and thinking about a business life after golf, but she has also made it clear this year will be all about golf after an injury-plagued 2007.
Sorenstam will have an interesting test right out of the box. How's this for an opening-round threesome Thursday: Sorenstam, defending SBS Open champion Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis? That's the first group of the afternoon session -- teeing off at 1:30 p.m. local time just as Golf Channel comes on the air -- and it's followed immediately by Morgan Pressel, Stacy Prammanasudh, Suzann Pettersen, 2007 Rookie of the Year Angela Park, Christina Kim, Kerr, Laura Diaz, Ai Miyazato and Carin Koch. Not even Jenkins could have scripted that any better.
The other notable absentees besides Ochoa include Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Juli Inkster -- all in the top 10 of the Rolex rankings. Also missing is Hawaii native Michelle Wie, who will return to competition next week at the Fields Open after a disappointing 2007 in which she battled injury, anxiety and her swing. By all accounts, she has found new joy in her freshman year at Stanford, where she will skip the spring quarter to try to get her competitive legs back under her on the golf course.
An interesting addition to the LPGA this year is Momoko Ueda of Japan, who earned a tour card by winning the Mizuno Classic last fall. The massive Japanese media presence that has been following Miyazato for the last two years is now focused on Ueda, which could be a blessing in disguise for Ai, who has struggled under the weight of national expectations. With the attention elsewhere, Miyazato may fulfill her considerable potential and have the kind of breakout year Pettersen had in 2007, when she won five times including a major championship.
The SBS Open is a 54-hole event ending on Saturday. Being a three-round event, getting off to a fast start is more important that usual. That will make the first round even more fun to watch. And since the final round is Saturday, that means things will be jumping Saturday night at Leilei's. Let the season begin.
-- Ron Sirak