September 21, 2009

Why the LPGA Needs a Star to Shine

Despite her accomplishments, Lorena Ochoa has not filled the void left by Annika Sorenstam's retirement

Lorena Ochoa tees off the 5th hole during the final round of the LPGA Samsung World Championship at Torrey Pines.

Lorena Ochoa tees off the 5th hole during the final round of the LPGA Samsung World Championship at Torrey Pines.

Somewhere down the road, perhaps at her wedding, Ava Madelyn McGee will be embarrassed when her father, Mike, tells how she watched her first Pittsburgh Steelers football game at 10 days old in her bassinette covered by a black-and-gold Terrible Towel. Her mom, Annika Sorenstam, will no doubt shake her head and roll her eyes. She has learned to live with a certifiably nuts Steelers fan. All is good for Annika, who is in a new, personally satisfying stage of her life. The LPGA she left behind can't say the same.

When Sorenstam talks about Ava, she uses words like "bliss" and "peace." And if motherhood has plopped Sorenstam in a place of unimagined pleasure, her departure from the tour has had greater impact than anyone imagined. The LPGA misses Annika more than Annika misses the LPGA. For years she was one of the most reliable stars in sports. Imagine the PGA Tour without Tiger Woods. That's the LPGA now.

A seamless transition was expected from Sorenstam to Lorena Ochoa, but life got in the way. From 2001 through 2006, Sorenstam won 46 of 124 LPGA events and was in the top 10 102 times. She won eight of 24 majors with 17 top-10s. Annika was almost always part of the story. Then along came Ochoa, who won 21 times in 2006-08, including two majors.

The baton was passed, and while it would be premature to say it was dropped, the exchange was at least fumbled. This year Ochoa has only two victories and wasn't a factor in the majors. "There are many things happening," Ochoa said last week at the Samsung World Championship. "I'm trying to give a priority [to] my private life. I'm going to get married soon."

Ochoa, who is from Guadalajara, is spending more time in Mexico City these days, where her fiance, AeroMexico CEO Andrés Conesa, lives. "I am very happy on that matter, and [need] just to get a balance," she said. "I am sure things will turn around soon."

Those sound like the words of a woman who is conflicted, confused and frustrated. Ochoa, 27, has always said she would retire in her early 30s to start a family and focus on her charitable foundation. Perhaps it will be sooner than that.

The winners of the LPGA majors this year were Brittany Lincicome, Anna Nordqvist, Eun-Hee Ji and Catriona Matthew. There was no Ochoa, or Suzann Pettersen, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster, Se Ri Pak or Michelle Wie. Those are the names people know.

On one hand this speaks to the depth of the tour. On the other it bemoans the lack of a dominant player. And individual sports such as golf, tennis and boxing need dominant players. Stars are the backdrop against which all other stories are told. Tennis' U.S. Open winner, Juan Martin Del Potro, is nothing without Roger Federer.

In what passes for a disappointing year in Woods' world—no majors—Tiger has won six times and contended in three of the four Grand Slam events. He played the role a star should play: Win often, and contend when you don't. Even in the one major in which Woods did not factor, he was the story for one day—Friday—by missing the cut at the British Open.

There are those who say the identity of the LPGA has been lost in a sea of Korean players. Yes, nine of the 21 tournaments this year have been won by seven of the 47 Koreans on tour. But what's needed is not fewer Koreans but one star to emerge from their midst. Seven Koreans have won majors, but only Pak has won more than one.

Se Ri was very popular when she was winning. People knew of the story about her sleeping in a cemetery to get tough when she was young, and they wanted to know more. A star is a star no matter where she is from.

When Jack Nicklaus left the stage after the 1986 Masters, most said no one would dominate the game again because there were too many good players. A decade later, Tiger Woods came along. How did that go?

Given the loss of tournaments this year—so far 17 are signed for next year, half as many as in 2008—the LPGA can't wait a decade for the next dominant player. Someone needs to step up right now, or Ava may be hearing stories at her wedding about a tour she hardly recognizes, a tour that missed her mom more than anyone expected.