Ten things you've missed on the LPGA Tour
DANVILLE, Calif. -- September offered terrific entertainment in golf. Phil Mickelson outlasted Tiger Woods in a riveting Labor Day showdown, then publicly dissed PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. Woods cranked up his game and took over the inaugural FedEx Cup playoffs. The United States coasted to another Presidents Cup victory, enlivened by Mike Weir's stirring win over Woods and Woody Austin's transformation into Jacques Cousteau.While you were busy watching all of this, the LPGA lingered in the background, churning out some interesting story lines of its own -- beyond Lorena Ochoa making herself even more comfortable in the penthouse.
Ochoa is No. 1
It's hard to believe, but Lorena Ochoa began the season as the No. 2-ranked women in the world. Now? She's No. 1 ... and it's not even close, writes Ron Kroichick. Story
As Woods, Mickelson and other big-name male players vanish into hibernation this week, essentially done for the year, the ladies are marching along. No fewer than 19 of the top 20 players on this year's money list will convene on Thursday, amid the picturesque rolling hills east of San Francisco, for the Longs Drugs Challenge. Not only that, but many top players -- plus a certain long-lost Hawaiian teenager -- will meet again next week in the Southern California desert for the Samsung World Championship.So as golf fans check out the LPGA again, we offer a quick guide. Call it the 10 Things You Might Have Missed While Fixated on That Tiger Guy: 1. Viva Lorena: Ochoa was a charming story last year, when she climbed out of the pack -- much to the delight of flag-waving fans from her native Mexico -- and became Annika Sorenstam's chief threat. Now her story is one of utter ruthlessness: Can anyone even challenge Ochoa as the game's best player?
Ochoa hasn't finished lower than sixth in a stroke-play event since mid-May. That's nearly five months ago, people.2. Annika's travails: Sorenstam stands on the brink of going an entire calendar year without winning. She hasn't had a winless season since 1994, when she was a rookie. Actually, she has won at least twice in each of the past 12 years, and two years ago she won 10 times. Put it this way: Sorenstam blew off the Longs and tournament officials essentially said, "Darn." They wanted her there, sure, but Sorenstam no longer drives interest the way she once did. In Northern California, especially, fans are just as eager to see Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis. 3. Wie sighting: Friday marks the second anniversary of the day Michelle Wie turned pro. Next week, on the same day she returns to competition at the Samsung, Wie celebrates her 18th birthday. These milestones would carry more gravity if her year on the golf course hadn't collapsed like a flimsy deck of cards. Wie marked another milestone on Sept. 24, when she started classes at Stanford. She also began showing up at the school's practice range, swatting shots and mingling with players on the NCAA champion men's team. Stanford officials dutifully checked the rules, not exactly sure of the parameters when a freshman shows up after turning pro. They determined Wie cannot play or practice with the Cardinal men or women during their 20 hours per week of "organized or structured" team activities, according to men's coach Conrad Ray, but she could join Stanford players for informal rounds. 4. Solheim fever: The U.S. victory in near-frozen, wind-whipped Sweden earned few headlines on this side of the pond. That was understandable, because the event went head-to-head with the Tour Championship and the almighty NFL. That was also regrettable, because the Americans stitched together quite a triumph. They went into a foreign land in daunting conditions -- players were dressed as if on their way to Lambeau Field in January -- and snatched a spirited victory. Creamer went unbeaten in five matches, ageless Juli Inkster did the same in four and Morgan Pressel took down Sorenstam in Sunday singles. Take that, Dottie Pepper. 5. Pettersen bounces back: Pepper's inadvertently televised condemnation of U.S. players ("chokin' freakin' dogs," she called them) at the Solheim could have applied to Norwegian Suzann Pettersen's collapse in the year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Remember? Pettersen wilted down the stretch, blowing a three-shot lead by playing the final four holes in 4 over par. Six months later, the ledger shows Pettersen with two victories since then, including her first major, the LPGA Championship. She stands No. 2 on the money list entering this week's tournament (No. 1 on the non-Ochoa money list), even though she has only one top-10 in the past three months. 6. Pressel seeks encore: Pettersen's heartbreak in April turned into Pressel's euphoria. At 18, she became the youngest major champion in LPGA history, a tidy distinction, and she soared to No. 4 in the world rankings along the way. Pressel has since slipped to No. 9, dragged back by an erratic putter. She still has her moments -- see the Solheim victory over Sorenstam -- but Pressel's inaugural triumph did not immediately lead to more glory. She still does not sit atop the heap of talented young American players, mostly because 7. Think pink: Creamer, though winless since February, has put together the steadiest season this side of Queen Lorena. Chew on these numbers: five top-5s, nine top-10s and top-25s every time she's made the cut (17 times in 19 starts).
Creamer also brings huge motivation to this week's tournament, because she grew up about 20 minutes down the freeway in Pleasanton, Calif. She will play before a large contingent of family and childhood friends, and she covets the idea of winning her hometown event.8. Barely slowing down: Inkster is another Bay Area native eager to make a splash amid the rising and plunging fairways of Blackhawk Country Club. She still has game at age 47, as she showed her baby-faced teammates during the Solheim Cup. Inkster's season started dreadfully, but she's capable of contending, with five top-10s this year, including a tie for third at the Evian Masters. Maybe it's unrealistic to think Inkster could pad her career win total of 31, but we went ahead and checked anyway: Beth Daniel owns the record as the oldest winner in LPGA Tour history (46 years, 8 months). Inkster stands at 47 years, 3 months. 9. No more Anna chatter: Natalie Gulbis made it through an entire news conference Tuesday without hearing the words "Anna" or "Kournikova." That familiar comparison -- all beauty, no victories -- became irrelevant when Gulbis notched her first LPGA win at the Evian Masters in July. Gulbis, like Creamer and Inkster, carries special incentive this week. She made her LPGA debut in this tournament 10 years ago, when it was held in her hometown of Sacramento, Calif. Gulbis was all of 14 years old at the time. 10. Pak grabs glory: This seems like an apt time for Se Ri Pak to receive recognition for her outstanding career. Pak, whose success as a rookie in 1998 sparked the wave of talented young Korean players on tour, was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame last month, and she will enter the World Golf Hall of Fame in November. The numbers validate Pak's resounding impact on the game. Five players from Korea are among the top 15 in this week's world rankings (topped by Pak herself at No. 6), same as the United States. And 14 players from Korea are among the top 50, only one fewer than the U.S. total. Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.