More is better--ah, American culture reduced to three words.
This is relevant to the LPGA as it heads into the homestretch of
the 20th century because it provides the basis for second-year
commissioner Jim Ritts's catchy new slogan. He calls the LPGA
the More Tour. Translation: more events (43) than ever before,
more of them on TV (31), more prize money ($30.2 million) and
Ritts takes considerable pride in those hard-earned numbers, but
what was showcased last week at the LPGA's season opener, the
Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions, was more great golf
by the two players who, over the past two years, have been most
responsible for the tour's increased popularity. Annika
Sorenstam, 26, dominated the 1995 season, won back-to-back U.S.
Opens and could parallel-park a fairway wood shot if called
upon. Karrie Webb, 22, is the long-hitting Australian who was
the tour's rookie sensation in '96, winning four times to become
the first woman to earn $1 million in one season. Webb also did
Sorenstam a good turn by bumping the bashful Swede--she has
joked that she would rather lose a tournament than make a speech
after winning one--out of the spotlight. Last weekend Sorenstam
and Webb made up the final pairing both days at Weston Hills
Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, the first time they had gone
head-to-head in a tour event for the final two rounds. Someday,
if the LPGA is lucky, we'll look back on this tournament as the
start of a great rivalry.
The women's game can use a rivalry like this. The tour already
has an A division--eight players combined to win nearly three
quarters of the tournaments last year. Besides Sorenstam and
Webb, that group includes Laura Davies, still the longest,
strongest and best player on tour; Emilee Klein, a former NCAA
champ who won back-to-back tournaments last year in her second
season; Meg Mallon and Liselotte Neumann, who have won major
championships by relying on their experience and short games to
make up for a lack of length off the tee; Michelle McGann, a
basher who has learned how to win; and Dottie Pepper, the tour's
leader in the will-to-win category.
Thanks to a blistering putter, Sorenstam won the first of what
we hope will be many showdowns with Webb. Tied going into the
final round, Sorenstam closed with a 66, her second such score
of the week, to pull away from Webb for a four-shot victory. It
was close until Webb three-putted the 14th green to fall two
strokes behind. Then Sorenstam birdied the next three holes,
sinking putts of 15, 20 and five feet. "I've never seen her hole
so many long putts," said Sorenstam's caddie, Colin Cann. "When
she putts well, she can win any tournament."
The closing blitz came after the Swede had birdied three of the
first four holes. Webb made just one birdie in that stretch,
although she had hit shots closer to the flag than Sorenstam on
three of the holes. "It was pretty discouraging," Webb said. "I
was second to putt, and she holed it every time. She was making
them from everywhere."
That frustration shows how far Webb has come in one season. Last
year she was thrilled simply to play in this event, which
Sorenstam, after her whirlwind '95 season, chose to skip. Webb's
second-place finish then came as a total surprise. Sorenstam's
victory last week brought a certain symmetry to the rivalry in
the making. If you're keeping score, Sorenstam and Webb have
played in 17 of the same LPGA events. Both players have three
wins and 11 top-10 finishes. Sorenstam has finished ahead of
Webb nine times while Webb has had nine fewer total shots.
Similar in age and ability, they should be as good for each
other as they are for their tour. Having Jack Nicklaus as a
standard, for example, pushed Lee Trevino and Tom Watson to
greater heights in the '70s and '80s, just as the splashy
arrival of Tiger Woods has energized today's PGA Tour. "I get
inspired playing with her," Sorenstam says of Webb. "It inspires
me to see someone hit a good shot every hole. The way she played
last year, I almost felt I needed to play better. It's hard to
beat a year like I had in '95, winning player of the year and
the Vare Trophy, but my stroke average ended up being half a
shot better per round last year." Was last week's victory,
Sorenstam's seventh on the LPGA tour, sweeter because she beat
Webb? "Maybe a little bit," Sorenstam says. "It was nice to beat
somebody who played so well the year before."
And the rivalry? Neither player is prepared to call it one just
yet. "There are other players--Laura, Michelle, Dottie, Kelly
Robbins," Sorenstam says. "This week it just happened to be us
two." But they are the two most likely to challenge Davies's
position as the top player in women's golf. Sorenstam has
already shown a knack for winning the big one, and Webb has the
kind of power that is almost a prerequisite for dominance. Their
styles of play are different. Sorenstam, average off the tee,
plays a slight fade and is deadly from the fairway with a wood
or an iron. She ranked second in greens hit in regulation last
year. Webb ranked third. Sorenstam also appears more at ease
with a putter in her hands, although who wouldn't after the week
she had on the smooth surfaces at Weston Hills? Webb plays a
draw, ranked seventh in driving distance last year (249.58
yards) and routinely blew it 20 yards or more past Sorenstam
last weekend. When Sorenstam reached her tee shot at the 6th
hole on Saturday, she saw that Webb's ball had gone 50 yards
farther. "Why don't you go ahead and hit driver next time?"
Sorenstam joked as Webb walked past.
Neither player had expected to be sharp last week. Webb was
nervous in this event last year because it was her LPGA debut.
This time, after barely touching a club for two weeks during a
post-Christmas break Down Under, she was nervous because she
didn't know if her game was ready. It was. She was the only
player in the 37-woman field to break par last Thursday when
30-mph winds turned errant shots into disasters. Webb's 69
included bogeys on three of the four par-3s. She made a triple
bogey the next day--going bunker to bunker and four-putting from
the fringe--something she hadn't done all year in '96, but also
made eight birdies and shot 68. "Go through my round?" she said
in the press room later. "We'll be here for an hour."
Webb didn't make a double bogey last year until April. She got
that out of the way last week in the third round. Her drive at
the 16th hole found the middle of the fairway and the middle of
a sand-filled divot. "That's one of the rules they ought to
change," Webb said, only half joking, before describing the
subsequent six-iron approach shot that she deposited into a
lake. Still, she shot 69 and shared the lead with Sorenstam.
Webb was involved in another odd episode on Sunday when a
spectator accidentally kicked her ball on the 6th hole. A
marshal pointed out the exact spot where Webb's ball had come to
rest before being kicked--in a depression. Forced to take the
marshal's word and replace her ball in a horrible lie, Webb
protested to a rules official and was allowed a free drop. "Most
efficient marshal I've ever seen," Webb said.
Sorenstam had a different sort of week too. It began on Jan. 4
when she married her longtime boyfriend, David Esch, in Lake
Tahoe, Nev. "I feel like I'm walking on clouds; I'm very happy,"
she said when she arrived at Weston Hills on Wednesday. She
wasn't as thrilled when her clubs failed to show up with her.
Cann went back to Fort Lauderdale International Airport and
picked up Sorenstam's bag, which had come in on a later flight.
It appeared to have been caught in a rundown between a pickup
truck and a Boeing 737. Cann pulled the head cover off the
driver, and the club head came off with it. Sorenstam's putter,
sand wedge, seven-iron and eight-iron were also damaged.
Callaway rushed her a new set of clubs, made to her
specifications, but the company was unsure whether the epoxy had
had enough time to set, so Sorenstam played with clubs she
picked up in the pro shop, and she scrambled to an opening 72.
Her best move was asking Mike Eggeling, the Odyssey rep and the
husband of LPGA player Dale Eggeling, for a new putter.
Sorenstam picked out the same model she had used before--a
Rossie II--but one with no loft (her old putter had two degrees
of loft). It felt good and rolled even better, and Sorenstam
enjoyed one of those mystical weeks when she saw the line on
every putt. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "Never,
never," Sorenstam said when asked if she had ever had a week
like it. "One of my weaknesses has been putts from nine to 20
feet, and this week two thirds of them went in." Sorenstam also
relied on Cann's scouting because she had never played the
course and, because of a fog delay, had played only 12 holes in
the pro-am. "Honestly, I didn't expect a lot," Cann said.
By the weekend the tournament had become a three-woman race
between Sorenstam, who had her first 66 in the second round,
Webb and 35-year-old Barb Mucha, who gave the grittiest
performance. Weakened by a virus that had her on a
20-tissue-a-day pace, Mucha moved into contention with a
second-round 66. An aspiring bowler whose career-best is a 252
game, Mucha said the round "was like a 270 game." A four-time
winner in 10 years on the tour, Mucha made a pair of eagles in
the final round and for one brief moment held the lead. She
gamely finished third, one shot behind Webb.
The gallery's focus, though, was understandably on Sorenstam and
Webb, the brightest new names on the LPGA's marquee. "It was
good," Webb said. "She got me this time. Maybe next time I'll
Next time? Oh, yes. We want more.