As a thriller in Phoenix made clear, the LPGA is golf's hottest
When the 2002 LPGA season ended last November, Annika Sorenstam
was merely the best player on tour. Now she's a star. Sorenstam
made her season's debut at last week's Safeway Ping in Phoenix,
and she felt an electricity there unlike any she had experienced
in her nine previous years. "There's a different buzz," she says.
Sorenstam's gender-bending decision to take on the boys at the
PGA Tour's Colonial, in May, has done more for her Q rating than
all of her 42 victories put together, but she is only part of the
success story of the women's tour. The perennial hand-wringing
about what's wrong with the LPGA has been swept away by the
realization that almost overnight it has become the coolest tour
in golf. Flush with exciting young talent and sizzling rivalries,
propelled by a low-fat schedule that this week delivers the
season's first major--already!--the LPGA, in its 53rd season, is
enjoying its best buzz since the Nancy Lopez--Jan Stephenson era.
Even the tour's scandal du jour is harmless fun. In an era when
The Bachelorette is must-see TV, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw's
romance with tour veteran Sophie Gustafson just makes for more
The Safeway Ping was a showcase for all that is right with the
LPGA. Sorenstam was, for three days, her usual brilliant self,
opening 67-66-65 to forge a two-stroke lead heading into the
final round. But unlike the PGA Tour's best player, the LPGA's
top gun faces fierce, fearless competition when leading on
Sunday. Tied for third, three strokes back, were Karrie Webb and
Se Ri Pak. Since 1998 Webb has won six majors and Pak has taken
four--while Sorenstam has bagged only two in the same span. This
time it was Pak who made a charge, making two eagles on the front
nine, including a four-iron from 225 yards to a foot and a half
on the par-5 4th hole, and shooting a six-under 30 to surge into
Sorenstam, uncharacteristically, showed little fight, shooting a
71 to tie for third, and leaving the LPGA's
glamour-girl-in-waiting, Grace Park, to chase Pak. Park, 24,
calls to mind Nancy Lopez's description of the LPGA's dream
ambassador--one who looks like a woman but plays like a man. Park
was dazzling down the stretch, birdieing six of the final 10
holes to shoot 65, but she came up a stroke short, thanks to an
epic finishing kick by Pak. All Pak did was spin a wedge to two
feet on the 16th hole for a tap-in birdie, hole a 40-foot putt to
save par on 17 after driving into a hazard, and then stick
another wedge to three feet at 18 for one last birdie in a tidy
round of 64.
For Pak, 25, it was her 19th LPGA victory. The only tournament
missing from her resume is the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which
kicks off this week, and a win would push Pak closer to her
ultimate goal: "To be Number 1," she said on Sunday. Sorenstam,
as usual, is standing in the way. She will be gunning for her
third straight triumph at the Nabisco, and a three-peat could
herald the kind of dominance in the majors that she craves.
"Colonial is one week," Sorenstam says when pressed on whether
her focus has strayed with all the hullabaloo surrounding her
upcoming cameo on the PGA Tour. "I'm going to play 20, 22 events
on the LPGA, and that's where I want to set all my new records.
The Colonial is only a step toward that."
Yes, that's how sweet life is on the LGPA these days--the PGA
Tour is now just a warmup act.
Nobody likes to see the country at war, but the invasion of Iraq
has come at a felicitous time for Augusta National. Suddenly its
male-only membership doesn't seem so important, and the various
groups arrayed against it have developed some perspective,
announcing plans to downsize their protests.
David Eger, the 51-year-old who won last month's MasterCard
Classic in Mexico City, has taken a circuitous route to senior
stardom. He spent most of the 1990s in administrative positions
with the PGA Tour and the USGA, and that has made for some
awkward interactions since joining the Champions last year.
"Let's just say these guys remembered me as a rules official, not
as a player," says Eger, who finished 13th at last week's Toshiba
Senior Classic, eight strokes behind winner Rodger Davis. "I
never had success on the regular Tour, so I wasn't really one of
them. I wasn't welcome, but I wasn't unwelcome. I was just ...
acknowledged." Not that his old jobs haven't come in handy. "It's
happened a couple of times that someone in my group needs a
ruling, and they radio for an official," he says. "Then the
official will say something like, 'Well, David's right there.
Just have him do it.'"
From the It Had to Be Fuzzy Dept.: During the first round of
last week's Toshiba, Fuzzy Zoeller entertained a sizable
gallery with his unique brand of humor. "How do you get an
Iraqi to stop playing bingo?" Zoeller asked. Answer: "Have
someone yell, 'B52!'"
During the third round of last week's Madeira Island Open,
Bradley Dredge of Wales had two chances to become the first man
to shoot 59 on the European tour, but he missed birdie putts of
11 and 30 feet on the final two holes. Dredge, the only player
in the top 100 of the World Ranking to show up for the $635,000
event, went on to earn his first victory, by eight strokes.
Achy touring pros may have to start looking elsewhere for their
rubdowns. Last week HealthSouth, the Birmingham health-care
company that provides fitness facilities for all three PGA
tours, was slapped with charges of "massive accounting fraud" by
the Securities and Exchange Commission, including accusations
that the company inflated earnings by as much as $1.4 billion.
PGA Tour Productions is naming the videotape library in its
offices in St. Augustine, Fla., after Brian Blodgett, the
veteran cameraman who was killed last September when the
forklift he was perched atop toppled over while filming a
Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match in Carmel Valley, Calif.
(SI, Sept. 16, 2002).
VOTE AT GOLFONLINE.COM
THIS WEEK: How many major championships will Tiger Woods win this
year: none, one, two, three, Grand Slam?
LAST POLL: Do you think LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw's personal
relationship with tour player Sophie Gustafson is appropriate,
wrong, or none of our business?
Appropriate ... 5% Wrong ... 13%
None of our business ... 82%
--Based on 4,601 responses to our informal survey.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PAUL CONNORS/AP (2) GIRL POWER A pumped-up Pak (above) upended Sorenstam (left) and agame Park.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (PARK) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AP (EGER) DOUBLE DUTY Eger's old job as a rules official has come in handy.