ST. ANNES-ON-SEA, England -- With the meat of its 2006 schedule in the rearview mirror, the LPGA moves into the final major with the money title and Player of the Year award on the line for the first time this century.
Karrie Webb was simply overwhelming in taking home both honors in 2000, and Annika Sorenstam has been the unquestioned best in women's golf since then. But when the Weetabix Women's British Open begins Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, as many as seven players will tee it up with a chance to be the top dog on tour.
Webb's victory Saturday at the Evian Masters was her third title of the season, including a major, and moved her to the top of the money list. After a half-decade of women's golf searching for a rival for Sorenstam, a half dozen emerged this year, including several of her old foes.
The first three majors were won by three Hall of Fame players: Webb at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Se Ri Pak at the McDonald's LPGA Championship and Sorenstam at the U.S. Women's Open. A fourth Hall of Famer -- Juli Inkster -- also has won this year. It was that quartet that dominated women's golf in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at one point combining to win 14 of 17 majors.
Take those four, throw in Lorena Ochoa and Mi Hyun Kim -- each has won two titles in 2006 -- add Cristie Kerr, and you have seven players with a realistic shot at being Player of the Year if they win at Lytham. And the riveting finish at the Evian -- the top six in the Rolex Rankings finished in the top 10 -- indicates the best players are all playing well. One of those, Paula Creamer, has yet to win in her sophomore year but has been in constant contention. Another, Michelle Wie -- who is No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings but not eligible for the top-player title because she is not an LPGA member -- remains winless in professional events. But she continues to astound by finishing in the top-five every time out despite being only 16 years old.
The last time the Women's British Open was at Lytham, in 2003, Sorenstam made history by holding off Pak in a stirring final-round duel to complete the career Grand Slam. It was a remarkable year for the Swede, one in which she won the McDonald's and the Weetabix, finished second at the Kraft Nabisco, and missed the three-way playoff in the U.S. Women's Open by one stroke. It was also the year in which she played against the men in the Colonial on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. This year has been, by her standards, a disappointment.
In Sorenstam's 13 LPGA events in 2006, she has 11 top-10s, with two victories, including one in the U.S. Women's Open that was her 11th major championship title. But time and again, Sorenstam -- who will be 36 in October and is in her 13th year on the tour -- has positioned herself for a run at victory but has not been able to build momentum in the final round.
Such was the case Saturday at Evian, where she trailed Webb by five strokes going into the final round and marched right down to birdie the first hole. When she stuffed her tee shot on the par-3 second hole to seven feet, it appeared as if she was about to unleash one of her famous birdie blitzes, but the putt horseshoed out of the cup, and she did not make another birdie until No. 10.
While Sorenstam has been searching for her magic, Webb seems to have recovered hers. A swing change under the direction of Australian instructor Ian Triggs and revived confidence in her putting stroke have placed Webb in contention almost every time she tees it up -- as was the case when she, not Sorenstam, was the unquestioned No. 1 in the world in the late '90s. Webb also displayed rekindled fire in the final round at Evian when she responded to a 2-stroke swing on No. 11 that placed her 2 behind Wie with seven holes to play with a three-birdie outburst that moved her from 2 down to 2 up with one hole to play.
On the 18th, Webb showed brilliant maturity in her course management when she opted to lay up from about 200 yards on the par 5, calculating correctly that she'd be better off forcing Wie and Laura Davies to have to make eagle on the hole to tie her rather than doing something silly and letting them into a playoff with a birdie by making a bogey. Webb, who finished second to Pak in a playoff at the McDonald's, leads the Player of the Year points list, and she would go a long way toward locking up that title with even a top-10 finish here -- as long as one of the other contenders doesn't walk off with the title.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes has been baked by the heat wave that has suffocated much of Europe this summer, and the always-firm fairways are rolling even faster than usual. That makes keeping the ball out of the roughly one billion bunkers -- many of which are pot bunkers from which a player can advance the ball only with a short pitch out -- even more difficult. Although it rained sideways for a while Monday, that did little to soften or slow the course. With more heat predicted for later in the week, Lytham appears to be primed to be a perfect British Open test -- firm and fast with perhaps a bit of wind. And what better way could there be to conduct the tournament that could very well decide who is remembered as the best player of 2006 on the LPGA Tour?
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.