Monday, May 5, 2008

The 19th Hole: Playing for Second

Arguably, the LPGA Tour is the hottest golf tour in the world right now. With Tiger Woods on the shelf until June while recovering from knee surgery, the PGA Tour appears to lack a marquee player to carry the Tour until his reemergence. Meanwhile, on the LPGA Tour, there are three players that – combined – have won all but a single tournament.

Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam, and Paula Creamer have dominated the ladies only Tour this year. Ochoa has five wins and has not finished out of the top 10 this season. Annika Sorenstam has picked up two wins this year, though with the benefit of not having to play head-to-head with Ochoa in those victories. Still, she has now notched 71 career wins after a season-altering injury last year that left many wondering if and when she would return to form. Up until this week, Paula Creamer had a victory in Hawaii and a narrow playoff defeat to Annika in last week’s Miami event.

On Sunday, though, Paula Creamer proclaimed that she deserves some consideration for the second player on the LPGA Tour. The 21 year old Pink Panther was rattled, but not shaken as she lost control of a golf tournament for the second straight week at the SemGroup Championship just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She found herself in a playoff with Juli Inkster, who lost the same event in a sudden death situation to Mi Hyun Kim last year. Creamer handled the stress better this time, and won the tournament on the second hole of the playoff.

The win is monumental in Creamer’s career for a host of reasons. The most obvious reason is that it came with Lorena Ochoa in the field. Louise Friberg is the only other golfer than can claim that this year.

It is also the first win that Creamer notched without her parents at tournament site. That might seem small to the adult set, but parents are generally one of the few constants in Tour life for many of the younger players. They become a critical support system above and beyond their child rearing. They can become advisors, coaches, sounding boards, travel buddies, and all kinds of roles. For Paula to take all of those on herself this week and come out a winner is a big deal.

Lastly, this is a comeback win in multiple senses. After surrendering the lead last week to lose to Annika in a playoff, Creamer could have sunk and not played well this week. Instead, motivated by that lose in her first career playoff, she rose to the occasion to take charge of the tournament on a difficult track. Still, she surrendered the lead again and could have squandered another opportunity at a win which almost certainly would have been devastating mentally.

Now Creamer has the same number of victories as Sorenstam does, with the distinction of having beaten Lorena Ochoa. While she sits considerably back of Annika and Ochoa in terms of world ranking points, Creamer is surging. She entered the week fourth in the world, playing third best. With the victory at the SemGroup, she soon will be ranked third and arguably playing second best.

What a rich time it is for the LPGA Tour. For years, critics of the PGA Tour have talked about the lack of a superstar to match Tiger Woods. There used to be big threes and fives, and the young guns and the old guard all pumped up as challengers for the world number one. None has ever truly materialized.

On the LPGA Tour, the criticism levied has been similar. Between Pak, Webb, Sorenstam, and now Ochoa, a single player has appeared to dominate the Tour for years at a time over the past decade. While that has not been entirely true, it is transparent now that there are three great, talented, and unique individuals at the top of their game.

Certainly, Lorena Ochoa is playing miles beyond even the other two in this threesome, but they appear to be gaining ground and momentum. She has challengers that can actually unseat her from time to time. Those challengers are of different ages and approaches that are obvious to any fan. In that regard, this race for first and second on the LPGA Tour outpaces any on the PGA Tour because the personalities involved are so distinctive and likeable. Fans pick their favorites and have reasons why. It is something that will benefit the women’s game tremendously.

Even still, there are a couple dozen golfers on Tour that can win in any given week. They bring close to the same talents and intangibles to the Tour that go unnoticed because they are overshadowed by this Big Three. But, who is to say that one of them will not emerge (or in Inkster’s case, reemerge) and challenge to be included in the conversation of best on the LPGA Tour?

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