Monday, April 21, 2008

The 19th Hole: Now is The Chance for the LPGA Tour

Lorena Ochoa has been a frequent subject of my columns this season. Actually, so far this year, one could wager with certainty that I would be writing about either Tiger Woods or Lorena Ochoa given their stunning winning percentages. Tiger Woods, though, cannot be a subject of this column for the next four to six weeks because of arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Therefore, Ochoa has to keep playing well to earn being my subject every week less I talk about Boo Weekley, the USGA, or something else unrecognizable to the casual golf fan.

Ochoa has not created that problem, though. Until this week in Orlando, Lorena has won three straight times on the LPGA Tour, four of five on the season, a major championship, and nine of her last 14 starts dating back to 2007. She has my attention. This week, at the Ginn Open, she was going for a fourth consecutive win which would tie her with several of the game’s legends for longest winning streak in tour history.

In typical Ochoa fashion, she played close to the leaderboard for two rounds before roaring to a 65 on Saturday to take the tournament lead. On Sunday, unlike last year where she choked away a win, Ochoa 2.0 held off the field to win by three over her nearest competitor and by eight shots over third place.

Under normal circumstances, I would be wondering about the status of the leaderboard on Sunday morning after a night out. Today, though, I was pretty certain that Ochoa had it in hand. It turns out that I was right. All I really had to do was watch the last few holes to see the last putt. I didn’t, but I could have. Ochoa is basically a lock of late.

The attention that Ochoa is receiving for her season and the current winning streak certainly is not to the level of Tigermania in 1996 after his three consecutive US Amateur wins. It does not rival the Woods of 2000 when he made it a personal mission to embarrass pro golfers everywhere. Still, though, what Ochoa is doing resembles the work of Woods in many ways. That can be nothing but good for the LPGA Tour.

In golf, it seems that the fans either love one of two things: domination by a single player or total misery by all players. Ochoa is dominating in a fashion to seems different from the runs in recent memory of Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, and even Annika Sorenstam.

Yes, Webb qualified for the Hall of Fame at a younger age and has more majors. But did she even win at a clip like this?

Se Ri did manage to dominate in a similar fashion and started a women’s golf revolution of sorts. The revolution she caused, though, created stronger competition for Ochoa today which makes the achievements of Lorena all the more impressive.

And then there’s Annika. Annika has 70 career LPGA Tour wins and is incredibly consistent in her play. Sorenstam won tournaments at a blistering place, but rarely did so with the kind of domination that Ochoa is exhibiting today.

Basically, Lorena has something that can one-up all of the players in recent memory that have been in a position similar to hers. Add in the fact that Ochoa is a philanthropist and a good person and she could very well be exactly what outsiders have been saying they need to get into the LPGA Tour. They say they need a superstar. They have had several, but now they have one that is undeniably dominant, loveable, and marketable. In other words, the time is now for the LPGA Tour to take the sport to another level.

With Tiger out of the picture and a stretch of mediocre tournaments on the PGA Tour after Quail Hollow, the LPGA Tour could very well find itself with a chance to steal the spotlight. Yes, in an event Ochoa plays, the field is likely to pay dearly. Still, fans want to see that and it would compel them to come to the game. In the end, those same dominated players will be the ones fans turn to in order to find the player to one day unseat Ochoa. It is a natural cycle – one Woods and the PGA Tour have been stuck in for almost a decade.

The parallels between Woods and Ochoa are remarkable in both how they perform on the course but also naturally magnetize people toward the game. With Woods on the shelf, Ochoa can step out of the shadow of the greatest golfer ever and share her gifts with a much larger audience. Dare I say it, and with respect to, but could Ochoa be the second coming of El Tigre?

No comments: