Power swing

Contenders look ready to challenge Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam for No. 1 in women's golf

Lpga Championship Preview

Thursday through next Sunday, Bulle Rock Golf Course, Havre de Grace

June 03, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,sun reporter

The torch was passed quietly earlier this year, not surprising given the reserved personalities of the two players involved. It had been long anticipated, considering how Lorena Ochoa had already replaced Annika Sorenstam on top of the LPGA money list at the end of last season.

Yet it still takes a little getting used to that Sorenstam, after a five-year reign as the game's dominant female golfer and maybe the best in LPGA history, is no longer ruling her sport as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. But will anyone, even Ochoa, be in such a position of power again?

"It's tough to foresee the future, if somebody is going to dominate the tour," Sorenstam said last week. "We have some

great talent out there. If you see the teenagers, the ones in their early 20s, they have great futures ahead of themselves.

We'll see what happens."

As the McDonald's LPGA Championship heads to Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace later this week, the twentysomethings (and one prominent not-yet twentysomething) have started to take over en masse.

"I think it's good for the tour, for sure," said Ochoa, 25, who has been one of the LPGA's top players since turning professional in 2003. "You see new faces. The competition is tough. Before maybe two or three players had the possibility to win; right now there are 20, 25, 30."

Said Sorenstam: "It's just a lot more competitive. I think that's good for the game. I think the players are a lot better than they were maybe 10 years ago."

The new No. 1

For much of her first three seasons on tour, Ochoa was known more for squandering late leads than winning tournaments, especially when Sorenstam was staring her down. But that changed last year when Ochoa went from having a reputation as a choker to having one as a champion.

After losing in a playoff to Hall of Famer Karrie Webb of Australia at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Ochoa won six times and became the first player in 10 years other than Sorenstam or Webb to top the money list.

Ochoa is still in the process of proving herself worthy of the title as the world's best female player.

"Unless Lorena rolls off five or six years like Annika, I don't think you can really say that she's a dominant No. 1," said Webb, 32, who resurrected her own career with five wins last year and nearly had a sixth, losing to Se Ri Pak in a playoff at Bulle Rock.

While her peers might not be as intimidated by Ochoa as she and others appeared to be of Sorenstam, Ochoa said recently: "Since last year, my name is something on the leader board and that's important. I'm also more confident and I know that my game is on a better level."

Still looking for her first major championship, Ochoa attributes her steady rise and recent success to some of her past failures.

"I think you learn just to handle the situations better," said Ochoa, who grew up in Mexico and was a dominant player as an amateur at the University of Arizona. "I really try to learn from the bad things that happen to me and it helps."

A beloved figure back home for her willingness to give of her time and money to projects such as the two golf academies she has opened, Ochoa acknowledges that she is trying to find a balance between what she can do off the course without it affecting her game.

"This is new for me, but I think I'm prepared because it didn't happen in one week or one month," Ochoa said. "I've been learning over the years. I've been wanting to be at the top for a while and I know it's going to be tough, so I'm going to do everything it takes and hopefully I can do that."

The young Americans

When 18-year-old Morgan Pressel won this year's Kraft Nabisco, she became the youngest major champion in LPGA history. It also moved Pressel to the head of a class of up-and-coming American players that includes Paula Creamer (20), Brittany Lincicome (21), Meaghan Francella (25) and Natalie Gulbis (24).

Whether that class still includes Michelle Wie is up for debate. The 17-year-old prodigy has spent much of the 2007 season rehabilitating a wrist injury and perhaps a fragile psyche that was damaged toward the end of last season, when she finished at or near the bottom of a few men's and women's events.

While many on tour still resent the amount of attention given a player who hasn't won an LPGA event yet -- Wie's last victory was as a 13-year-old -- others are beginning to understand her relevance. Pressel, whose own amateur record was much more impressive than Wie's, knows how important Wie is to women's golf.

"She brings tons of attention when she plays," Pressel said.

Wie certainly received plenty of attention last week, first by showing up at the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika outside Charleston, S.C. -- it was her first event in five months -- and then by withdrawing after 16 holes in the opening round.

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