June 27, 2007

Sirak says: And the winner is...

Will it be the new guard or the old guard at this year's women's U.S. Open?

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – The last time the U.S. Women's Open was played at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club the LPGA was embarking on a transition from the Big Four Era to the Annika Era. But no one who watched Karrie Webb defeat Se Ri Pak by eight strokes at Pine Needles in 2001 could have imagined the five-year run of greatness Sorenstam was about to lay on the LPGA. This year's tournament at the venerable Donald Ross design also comes at what could be a turning point for women's golf, certainly at a time packed with compelling questions about an impressive array of golfers.

Is Lorena Ochoa, No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, ready to add a major championship to the 12 LPGA events she has won in her brief career? What about__Cristie Kerr__, who has nine career wins, or__Paula Creamer__, who is jockeying with Kerr for the title of Best American? Will 18-year-old__Morgan Pressel__ make her second LPGA victory her second major? And is Annika Sorenstam recovered enough from the neck injury to extend her run of consecutive years with a major title to seven? And that's just part of the story.

Will Suzann Pettersen, who finished second to Pressel in the Kraft Nabisco Championship and then won the McDonald's LPGA Championship, build on a potential Player-of-the-Year season with a victory in the U.S. Open? Will Webb and Pak win a major for the second consecutive year after a three-year stretch of being shut out? Can__Laura Davies__ win a major and get the final two points she needs to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame? And what about Michelle Wie? The last time we saw the 17-year-old she was a physical, technical and emotional mess in finishing 10 strokes out of next-to-the-last place at the McDonald's.

Want more? Is Brittany Lincicome, a two-time winner on tour at the age of 21, ready to prove she can contend consistently in the big events? And what about__Natalie Gulbis__, who is still only 24 but facing some serious questions? Is her bad back healthy enough to let her tee it up at Pine Needles, and is she ready to snap a career non-winning streak that currently stands at 149 LPGA events? Can__Juli Inkster__, who just turned, become the oldest to win an LPGA major?

Who among the tough, young crew of lesser-known but talented Americans – Nicole Castrale, Meaghan Francella and Angela Stanford among them – can win their country's national title? And most importantly, who this week will be best able to hit the devilish Ross greens that repel approach shots into bogey-making collection areas?

There may be no one who is more closely watched at Pine Needles than Wie. Fighting injury, a loss of tempo in her swing and confidence that has been eroded by a series of tournaments in which she has not broken par since the final round of the Evian Master last July, Wie rolls into Pine Needles having withdrawn from the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour, admitting that her game as it now stands is not ready for a men's professional course.

Wie also comes into the Open at a low point in her relationship with LPGA players. Already resentful that Wie has shown no interest in joining the tour, the players were especially miffed when she withdrew from the Ginn Tribute after 16 holes on Thursday, saying she was too injured to play two more holes, then showed up at Bulle Rock Golf Course on Saturday – site of the McDonald's LPGA Championship the following week – to practice.

Things got worse when Sorenstam said Wie's actions lack respect and class and Wie said she felt she had nothing to apologize for. Wie enters this Open trying to re-establish herself both competitively and in the eyes of the public. Her dilemma is compounded by the fact that on October 11 she turns 18 and other 18 years olds are winning on tour, even winning majors. The one-time 14-year-old can't-miss-kid is now ready to head off to Stanford University in September as tangled in doubt and questions as any teenager embarking on college.

When the Open came to Pine Needles in 2001, the LPGA was concluding a stretch in which Inkster, Webb and Pak had won a combined 11 major championships from 1998 through 2001. Sorenstam, who had won consecutive U.S. Women's Opens in 1995 and '96 was winning a fair amount of tournaments but did not get her third major until the 2001 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Little did anyone know the '01 season was the beginning of a five-year stretch of stunning domination. Since '02, Inkster, Webb and Pak have won a combined five majors while Sorenstam has collected seven titles and at least one in every year since '01.

Sorenstam, who won the second of her three U.S. Women's Open titles at Pine Needles in 1996, played 104 LPGA tournaments from 2001 through 2005 and won an astounding 43, including six majors. She finished in the top-three 69 times during that stretch, or two out of every three times she teed it up. At the age of 36 and well down the road to starting a business career under the ANNIKA brand, Sorenstam comes to Pine Needles at an interesting point in her career. While it is not clear how much longer she will compete, it is probably safe to say she will make a run at recapturing the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings before departing the stage.

Last year, the LPGA majors were won by three Hall-of-Fame players – Webb, Pak and Sorenstam – and 22-year veteran Sherri Steinhauer. This year is off to a start representative of the new era the LPGA is entering, with Pressel and Pettersen each getting their first major title. The final major of the year – the Ricoh Women's British Open – is fully demonstrative of that new era by taking a women's major to the Old Course at St. Andrews for the first time.

If there is one unifying storyline at Pine Needles it is the battle of the generations. Sorenstam (10), Inkster (7), Webb (7) and Pak (5) have won a combined 29 majors. Pettersen (1), Pressel (1), Ochoa, Kerr, Creamer and Lincicome have won a combined two – with likely many, many more to come. What will play out this week? Will this week be another step toward the changing of the guard in women's golf, or another stand by the veterans who have carried the LPGA to unparalleled popularity as they prepare to hand off an extremely healthy product to an extremely talented, extremely deep pool of you talent?