2006: Great expectations

The tour is coming off a 2005 season that showcased a down-to-the-wire U.S. Women’s Open, a fist-pumping American victory at the Solheim Cup and feisty, young talent fearful of no one. It was a prelude to what should be an unprecedented season of competition. And perhaps for the LPGA, a transforming one.

When the LPGA kicked off its 56th season Feb. 16 with the SBS Open in Hawaii, it began to showcase a convergence of talent heretofore unseen. In the mix is the game’s greatest star, Annika Sorenstam, plus charismatic American sensations Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie. Throw in an international dynamo such as Japan’s Ai Miyazato and a dozen other global contenders vying for a sliver of the spotlight. That explains why expectations are running high. Indeed, the only comparison may be the NBA debut of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose combined impact elevated their league to the forefront of international sport.

With a talent pool that’s far more than a duet, the LPGA is positioned to attract more sponsors, and potentially, its first major domestic TV rights deal that could make it the envy of women’s professional sports and steal headlines from some of its male rivals. (See TV story, page 13.)

“We saw the beginning of the new LPGA last year,” LPGA commissioner Carolyn Vesper Bivens says. “I think this year is going to be a seminal moment. I can’t think of a time in history where there have been as many big personalities and top-notch athletes within one league. Most leagues are fortunate to have one or two big stars. And we don’t have a prima donna in the bunch.”

Even those with no vested interest agree.

“Rivalries are what the LPGA has been lacking, and no longer is that the case,” says Bill Sutton, professor and associate department head of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.

All rivalry talk, of course, must begin at the top with Sorenstam. The 35-year-old Swede opens a third consecutive season with the Grand Slam in mind, a once-ridiculous goal that now seems achievable. After winning 10 of 20 LPGA events in 2005, Sorenstam continues to prove she has no equal on her march to Kathy Whitworth’s record of 88 career victories. With 66 victories and nine major championships in what is arguably the most competitive era of women’s golf, Sorenstam shows no signs of diminished skills. Don’t be surprised to see Sorenstam stick around for several years just to show the teen-queens who rules.

Ask Sorenstam who she considers her rival and she gives a quick, simple answer: everyone.

In reality, it’s no one. Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak have provided Sorenstam steady competition over the past decade, but now, no player alone can tackle the daunting task. Creamer, 19, established herself as the No. 2 player on tour last year; Cristie Kerr has shown signs of brilliance at times; and Lorena Ochoa has the ability to win any given week. None, however, has been able to put together a consistent challenge for Sorenstam’s perch.

“One week it’s one person, the other week it’s another person,” Sorenstam says. “When I go play, I focus on my own game and try to stay ahead of everyone, it doesn’t matter who it is. Whether it’s Paula or Lorena, I don’t focus on the individual.”

Smart money says don’t bet against Sorenstam. But if you had to wager on a Sorenstam rival, put your money on Creamer, who won four times around the world in 2005 on her way to LPGA Rookie of the Year honors. Problem is that Creamer vs. Sorenstam could turn out to be a changing of the guard. If it takes Creamer several years to catch Sorenstam – which may be the time Sorenstam is near retirement – it wouldn’t necessarily constitute a rivalry, rather more of an ascension to the top thanks to attrition.

“Annika, she is the best player and she is where I want to be,” Creamer says. “I always look at what’s ahead of me. Right now, she’s ahead of me. That’s all I’m focused on.”

The brewing rivalry among teenagers Creamer, Pressel and Wie – even though Wie likely won’t be a tour member for another two years – has the potential to be the LPGA’s main attraction for 20 years. What makes this dynamic so intriguing is that all three are similar in many respects, though none of them will admit it. All three are American, possess great skills, have engaging personalities, are attractive and extremely marketable. Each wants to become the No. 1 player in the world, and each realizes she has

to beat the other two to do it.

Creamer is the most accomplished of the three, is more well-rounded and has more experience. Pressel, 17, tied for second at the U.S. Women’s Open last year and plans to take an aggressive attitude and hot putter to the victory circle this year. She wills the ball into the hole. Wie, 16 and now a professional, will display her power game in only eight LPGA events this year but is looking for victory just like the others. Three runner-up finishes in 2005 have her on the cusp.

The personalities, aside from compelling golf, will make this must-see TV. Creamer is cordial with Pressel and Wie, and says she finds it humorous that many make it seem the three don’t like each other. Creamer has played alongside Pressel in numerous junior events and has built a friendship with Wie since the

two were teammates on the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup team in 2004.

The tension between Wie and Pressel, however, has been well documented. Over the past eight months, Pressel has been critical of the media’s failure to criticize Wie for a final-round 82 in the U.S. Women’s Open and has accused her of ducking players at the U.S. Women’s Amateur for fear of losing. As recently as two weeks ago, Pressel said she believes Wie should be required to qualify for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open and would be disappointed if the U.S. Golf Association gave her an exemption. Wie has not responded to Pressel’s statements.

“I think I have a rivalry with everyone, not just Paula and Michelle,” Pressel says. “In order to win, you obviously have to beat everybody. If Michelle and Paula finish last and I finish second to last, I’m not going to be happy. Just because I beat them doesn’t mean I’ve accomplished my goals.”

Says Sorenstam: “It’s getting fun with the fresh blood, I do enjoy that. I like their attitudes. They’re quite confident, let’s put it that way.”

They’re not the only ones oozing confidence. The international influence is stronger than ever with more than 100 players hailing from outside the United States. Miyazato, 20, already a superstar in her native Japan, is a pint-sized dynamo who dominated Q-School. Miyazato has a charming personality with a $1 million smile, an attribute that, when paired with her precision game, should easily make her marketable in the U.S. And don’t forget that Korea’s Birdie Kim and Jeong Jang captured major championships last year.

Everyone else could, perhaps, get lost in the shuffle. Veterans Rosie Jones and Beth Daniel are nearing the end of their careers but fellow fortysomethings Juli Inkster and Meg Mallon still have plenty left. Look no further than last year’s Solheim Cup for proof. Then there is the twentysomething brigade. Expect to see Kerr, Ochoa, Christina Kim, Natalie Gulbis and Grace Park, among others play with chips on their shoulders. And other young rookies such as Brittany Lang, Louise Stahle and Julieta Granada are out to prove that the race for Rookie of the Year is not a foregone conclusion. All this, of course, doesn’t include unknown little girls beating balls on a practice range somewhere, training to become the next world-beater.

“The product is very well balanced despite having a dominant player,” says Dottie Pepper, former tour star turned television analyst. “There are players with the ability to win a golf tournament that are 16 to 46.”

With all the hype and anticipation of a riveting 2006, inevitably there is a potential negative. What happens if expectations fall short? What happens if the teen rivalry doesn’t develop? What happens if no one emerges to rival Sorenstam, and the Swede dominates more than ever?

“If we were pinning the upcoming season on one, two or three people, there is the opportunity that it doesn’t live up to the expectations,” Bivens said. “But it’s about 12 or 14 players, and there are still those from Q-School that the tour doesn’t know about. These combinations are what is generating the hype right now.”

Sorenstam, for one, expects this season to be chock full of electricity.

“I have a little recharged energy,” Sorenstam said. “It’ll be full force this year for me. There is no doubt.

“It’s an exciting time, let’s take advantage of this. Let’s roll.”

If nothing else, we know Sorenstam will do her part.

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