LPGANovember 23, 2009

Perfect Punch Line

Anna Nordqvist and Lorena Ochoa are the big winners as the LPGA Tour Championship caps a rocky year

Nordqvist went on a birdie barrage in Monday's third round to beat Lorena Ochoa by two shots. Ochoa's birdie on the final hole was just enough to edge rookie Jiyai Shin for player of the year honors.

Nordqvist went on a birdie barrage in Monday's third round to beat Lorena Ochoa by two shots. Ochoa's birdie on the final hole was just enough to edge rookie Jiyai Shin for player of the year honors.

As metaphors go, the LPGA Tour Championship presented by Rolex makes Moby Dick look like just another fish story. If Herman Melville's masterpiece is a whale of a tale about the struggles of human existence, this season-ending event at the Houstonian G&CC was a reductive rendering of perhaps the most tumultuous of the tour's 60 seasons. The original sponsor, Stanford Financial, went belly-up when Allen Stanford found it difficult to write checks while handcuffed, busted for investment fraud. The tournament was then saved when Rolex, a 30-year supporter of the LPGA, rode to the rescue, able to blot out the red ink but unable to turn the dark skies blue or make the sun stay in the sky longer.

Eventually, the Tour Championship limped home a day late and a round short, reduced to 54 holes by relentless rain and the bizarre decision to begin with a 120-player field. Even on Thursday, when Lorena Ochoa took the first-round lead with a 66 under sunny skies, not everyone could get around the course before dark. Where was the old season-ending ADT Championship and its cozy 32-player field when you needed it?

There were simply too many players for the post-daylight saving time portion of the calendar, not to mention being an absurd number to have in a Tour Championship, a name that implies a select field that earned its way. But with only 80 players getting playing cards off the money list, a full one-third of the golfers had not even qualified for the tour in 2010. No. 154 on the money list -- Nicole Jeray with all of $4,780 earned -- was in the field.

The tournament began with the anticipation of an epic struggle between Ochoa and Jiyai Shin for player of the year, which went to the final event for the first time since 1994, and in that sense it certainly did not disappoint. Ochoa ended up winning her fourth consecutive top-player title by a point. But the drama was delayed because neither player would hit another shot for more than 72 hours after their first rounds ended Thursday with play delayed six hours Friday, then washed out completely Saturday, not resuming until noon Sunday.

The other sizzling story line -- Michelle Wie playing after her first tour win a week earlier in Mexico -- ended abruptly when the 20-year-old Stanford student double-bogeyed No. 17 Thursday, finished with a 72 and then withdrew, citing pain in her left ankle (see page 26). She was out of town in time for Saturday's football game against Cal, joining Tiger Woods, wife Elin and their daughter Sam among the disappointed Cardinal fans at Stanford Stadium.

When play finally resumed Sunday, Ochoa was still atop the leader board, one stroke clear of Reilley Rankin and four better than Shin. Darkness halted play with Kristy McPherson having finished 36 holes at eight under par while Shin was seven under through 16 holes and Ochoa six under through 17. When the second round finally ended Sunday, all three held their positions.

Then, with every eye on Ochoa and Shin, Anna Nordqvist, the rookie who won the LPGA Championship earlier this year and who seems genetically incapable of missing a fairway, added the Tour Championship to her trophy case Monday with a run of seven birdies in eight holes beginning on No. 8. Her final-round 65 put her at 13-under-par 203, two strokes lower than Ochoa. Na Yeon Choi and Kristy McPherson tied for third at 206. "I just tried to play solid golf," said Nordqvist, whose way with words makes fellow Swede and inspiration Annika Sorenstam look downright loquacious.

Shin, whose putter was cold on a sunny Monday, lost her opportunity to become the first Korean to be LPGA player of the year, a feat not even accomplished by the godmother of Korean golf, Se Ri Pak. Shin made bogey on No. 17 then watched from the fairway as Ochoa birdied 18. "My putting was just so bad," said Shin, who also missed an opportunity to match Nancy Lopez as the only golfer to win the top player and rookie award in the same season. Shin's final-round 73 left her at 210 as she finished T-8 and ended up with 159 points to 160 for Ochoa, who trailed by eight points coming into the tournament.

For Ochoa, it was easily the most excited she had ever been for finishing second. She has struggled at times twhis season and on those occasions flashed anger and frustration on the course that was out of character. "This has been the toughest [year] in many ways," Ochoa said. "There has been so much going on in my life, and I wanted it so much and it came down to the last hole. Now I go home with a beautiful trophy." On Dec. 4, she not only marries but becomes the stepmother of three children. Ochoa says her wedding will be followed by a three-week honeymoon. "I don't even know where," she said, beaming. "It's a surprise."

The cut was supposed to be to the low 70 and ties after 36 holes with another cut to the low 30 and ties after 54 holes. Instead, the tournament itself was cut to 54 holes, somehow appropriate in a season that began with 31 tournaments, ended with 27 and lost commissioner Carolyn Bivens and high-profile sponsors such as Corning, McDonald's, Michelob and Sybase along the way.

When the 2010 schedule was unveiled Wednesday with 23 events (see page 28), it was seen as a victory in a chaotic season that cannot disappear into the rearview mirror soon enough. "That's how everyone feels, except maybe Shin," Dave Brooker, who had his own Captain Ahab-type year, said about the embattled season. He started 2009 as Ochoa's caddie, missed six weeks with a broken foot, then was fired despite winning 21 times in 58 starts with Ochoa. "This," said Brooker, who now works for Suzann Pettersen, "is a year to get behind us." Amen, brother.

Among the bright spots on the horizon -- and it sure wasn't the sun anywhere around Richmond, Texas -- was the 21-year-old Shin, who has six LPGA wins, including the '08 Ricoh Women's British Open, in the last 15 months and 30 worldwide titles overall. Shin's rookie of the year acceptance speech Friday night, delivered in English, was like her game: brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed.

"Compared to the hard times of our founders, these are the best of times," Shin said in deference to Louise Suggs, one of the 13 LPGA founders, who was on hand. Shin, who lost her mother in a 2003 car crash when she was 15 said, "I love you [Mom] and I miss you. In my heart you are always here with me." Then, she said to youngsters, "Do not be afraid to dream big. You, too, may grow up to be LPGA rookie of the year.

Shin then gave Suggs a warm hug. "Oh my," Suggs said later, "that little gal has got some game. That was a Hall of Fame performance." It was the kind of performance that displayed one of the strengths of the LPGA: its accessible array of talent.

"When I'm asked my priorities for next year I say one word: tournaments," said Mike Whan, who takes over as commissioner Jan. 4 and was attending his first LPGA event since being named to the post Oct. 14. "When the best players in the world are not playing, no one wins. Not the sponsors, not the charities, not the players." There was a lot of not playing last week at the Tour Championship, and there will be too many empty weeks on next year's schedule -- 17 in all.

Whan is enthusiastic about the possibilities. "The two great positives we have are the talent level -- both in terms of skill and in terms of personalities," he said, "and globalization. Does that diversity make it easy? No. Does it make it exciting? Yes."

Whan got a taste in Houston of both the ups and the downs of the LPGA. In a year in which the tour never seemed to get a break, it had another big one get away at the Tour Championship. But as always, the LPGA gets it done. The season everyone wants to forget finally ended, appropriately, a day late and without a sponsor -- but with every reason to look forward to next year, even with its thin schedule.