Will Annika's challengers emerge at Kraft?

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- There are two ways to look at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. It is the first major championship of this LPGA season. But it can also be viewed as the first tournament of an entirely new era for the LPGA, an era that could raise the women's game to a level of popularity it has never known.

This week at the Kraft Nabisco, Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie are playing as professionals in the same event for the first time ever. Although Sorenstam is still secure as queen, the scramble begins in earnest this week to determine who is the lady in waiting.

All four played together here last year, with Sorenstam winning, but at the time, Pressel and Wie were amateurs and Creamer was a rookie. Now the 35-year-old Swede has a 16-year-old (Wie), a 17-year-old (Pressel) and a 19-year-old (Creamer) emerging as challengers for her title as best in the game.

Sorenstam -- with 67 career victories, nine major championships and having captured seven of the last 20 LPGA majors -- is not only alone at the top, but also so far distanced from her competition that a discussion of who is No. 1 cannot be taken seriously, the intrigue does still abound about who will emerge as chief among her rivals.

Part of what makes this LPGA season so compelling is the complicated mixture of players capable of winning. Juli Inkster, who has seven professional majors as well as three U.S. Women's Amateur titles, proved in Phoenix two weeks ago that, at nearly 46, she can still win. Cristie Kerr has won five times in the last two years; Grace Park won the Kraft Nabisco in 2004; Birdie Kim and Jeong Jang won majors last year; Christina Kim and Jennifer Rosales are proven competitors; and Natalie Gulbis seems poised to get her first LPGA victory. Ai Miyazato from Japan is playing in her first LPGA season but has already won 12 times on her home tour.

Make no mistake about it, the women's game is loaded.

Talent aside, another story line makes this season especially compelling. Sorenstam, the most audacious goal-setter in the history of the game -- male or female -- wants to become the first player of either gender to win four major professional championships in the same season. When Bobby Jones did it in 1930, two of his majors were amateur events. And when Tiger Woods won four consecutive majors it was over two seasons -- 2000 and 2001. Sorenstam, who believes that one day she will shoot a 54 -- and since she already has a 59, who is to doubt her -- will contest this to the bitter end, and since she had won three of the last five Kraft Nabisco Championships, has to be considered the prohibitive favorite. But that does not mean this will be a tournament devoid of drama.

Even if this season turns out to be another step in the coronation of Sorenstam as the greatest player in the history of the LPGA, it could also turn out to be the season in which the next generation of talent on the tour steps forward. Let's not forget that in the first two events of the year, a total of five players were in playoffs. And of those five -- Seon-Hwa Lee (20), Joo Mi Kim (21), Soo Young Moon (22), Meena Lee (24) and Lorena Ochoa (24) -- all were more than a decade younger than Sorenstam and two decades younger than Inkster. Hey, there's something happening here and what it is, is exactly clear. The women's game is deeper and better than ever.

If Sorenstam high-fives the Dinah Shore statue in victory on her way to the 18th green on Sunday, it will create a situation of perfect symmetry. A victory here this week would give Sorenstam four Kraft Nabisco Championships, three McDonald's LPGA Championships, two U.S. Women's Opens and one Weetabix Women's British Opens. That's a record of major championship domination similar to the mark by Jack Nicklaus of six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens.

Truly, this season could be the beginning of the final recognition of Sorenstam as one of the most dominant athletes in the history of all sports, regardless of gender. Or it could be the beginning of the next era of domination -- whether that be by Creamer, Pressel or Wie. What we have, it seems, is a perfect storm of competition. And imagine what it would be like if multiple major winners such as Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak regained their lost form. Last year, Kerr, Park, Inkster, Wie, Gulbis, Creamer and Pressel all finished in the top 20 at the Kraft Nabisco as Sorenstam finished eight strokes clear of runner-up Rosie Jones. Even if no one gets any closer to Sorenstam than eight strokes, it will be highly interesting and extremely entertaining as to who makes the most determined run at her.

What begins on Thursday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is the first LPGA major of the year. But it also could very well be that this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship is the tip-off of a new generation of players who will produce the most compelling competition in the history of the women's game.

This is a tournament to watch. The best ever is trying to solidify that reputation. Some extremely crafty veterans are trying to pad their resumes. And the best young class in the history of the LPGA is looking to make a name for itself. This Kraft Nabisco is truly a major championship.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.