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Annika back on top of her game -- and she's not alone

2/17/2008 - Golf

KAHUKU, Hawaii -- Reason No. 367 why, Tiger Woods aside, the LPGA is more fun to watch than the PGA Tour: There is competition. As the main character in Dan Jenkins' soon-to-be-released novel, "The Franchise Babe," says to explain why he decided to cover the LPGA: "You might say I'd grown tired of writing, 'Tiger Woods' and then a comma."

That was the case for about five years here, when LPGA game stories began "Annika Sorenstam" and then a comma. From 2001 through 2005, a stretch in which Sorenstam won 43 of 104 LPGA events, I pretty much wrote two stories: either "Sorenstam wins" or "Sorenstam should have won." That has changed -- and for the better.

Last year, Lorena Ochoa knocked Sorenstam from the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings by winning eight times, including the Ricoh Women's British Open. The accomplishment was tarnished just a wee bit by the fact that Sorenstam was sidelined for two months with a ruptured disc in her neck and has not really played at full strength since mid-2006, when her neck first started bothering her.

A healthy and hungry Sorenstam won the season-opening SBS Open on Saturday at the Turtle Bay Resort, making birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 to hold off Laura Diaz, Jane Park and Russy Gulyanamitta by two strokes. And while Ochoa wasn't in the field, the event wasn't diminished in quite the same way a PGA Tour event is when Woods, Phil Mickelson or both stay home.

This was a vintage Sorenstam performance. She hit every fairway in Saturday's final round and missed just one green as she wore down the opposition, then dismissed them with those late birdies. But what made it special was how many players ran with her.

The names Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Suzann Pettersen all appeared on the leaderboard during the final round, joined by an extremely talented group of young players led by Jane Park (age 21), Angela Park (19), Momoko Ueda (21), Yani Tseng (18) and In-Kyung Kim (19).

One of the differences between the LPGA Tour and the PGA Tour is that the young players here are holding up their end of the bargain. The average age of winners on last year's LPGA Tour was 26.65. Ochoa and Pettersen both are 26, Creamer is 21, Morgan Pressel is 19, Brittany Lincicome is 22 and Natalie Gulbis is 25. They all have won. Who was the last highly touted young stud on the PGA Tour to live up to his news clips? Tiger Woods? Surely not Sergio Garcia. Nor Charles Howell III.

And here is what has the potential to make this LPGA season especially exciting. What if Sorenstam returns to full form? What if she is in contention week after week? And what if Ochoa continues to perform like the player who has won 14 times in two years, and Pettersen builds on her five-win season of a year ago? What if all those kids keep getting better, and what if Kerr is just reaching her peak years?

Sort of sounds like the days when Jack Nicklaus had to fend off Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and others to win majors. There is no question that the No. 144 in a PGA Tour field whom Woods has to face is better than the No. 144 Nicklaus had to face, but I'm not so sure the No. 10 Woods has to face is better than the No. 10 Nicklaus had to face. Simply put, the competitive chemistry on the LPGA right now is more interesting than the competitive chemistry on the PGA.

That said, there have been few things in all of sports more entertaining than a Woods victory. From where I sit, it doesn't matter if the win is by one stroke or 15 strokes, it is fun to watch the guy play. Greatness is like a fine wine; it should be savored, sipped slowly, enjoyed.

That was why it was so much fun to watch Sorenstam return at the SBS Open as Annika, the one-name superstar who emerged from the 2003 Colonial Invitational having captured the hearts of many and having earned the respect of all. Injury, distraction -- both personal and professional -- and diminished desire had eroded her skills. But the clear message she shouted with her golf clubs at Turtle Bay was that she is ready, for one year at least, to make another run at the top. What makes it more fun is that the talent level of the LPGA won't allow it to be a solo run.

Winning is not easy, even if you have won a lot. And doubt is a demon that visits everyone, no matter how accomplished. Sorenstam picked up career victory No. 69 in September 2006. She took a lead into the final round on Saturday at the SBS Open for the first time since October 2006, when Ochoa chased her down at the Samsung World Championship. But she got the job done, despite a half-dozen players who hung with her to the very end.

That was a good way to start the LPGA season. It continues at the HSBC Champions in two weeks in Singapore. That will be the first time this season Annika and Lorena will be in the same field. Suzann and Morgan and Cristie and Paula will be there as well. Hey, let's go see the men play. I hear Frank Lickliter is in the field. These girls are good.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and the recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."