LPGA's offseason has only made the heart grow fonder

KAHUKU, Hawaii -- With pitchers and catchers preparing to fling the horsehide around in Florida and Arizona, and either Roger Clemens or Brian McNamee slinging horse feathers on Capitol Hill, the good folks of the LPGA gathered at Leilei's Bar at the Turtle Bay Resort on Tuesday to rekindle old friendships, retell old war stories and focus on a new season. Like baseball, the former national pastime that has become a national nightmare, the LPGA has a real offseason. And that absence has made the heart grow fonder.

It has been two and a half months since Lorena Ochoa won $1 million at the ADT Championship to end a fascinating 2007 season in which the Mexican star surpassed Annika Sorenstam as No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings. That downtime has only whetted the appetite for whatever is next in women's golf. And the story will start to unfold Thursday at Turtle Bay when the SBS Open will tee off the new season with a compelling field that will include Sorenstam, who says she is fit and ready to reclaim the top spot.

But first things first. Before a shot could be hit in anger, there was the matter of good-natured reunions, in which the players took verbal shots at each other. A chief target was reining U.S. Women's Open champion Cristie Kerr for her sizzling photo on the cover of the new Golf For Women magazine. "Six-pack abs, baby, six-pack abs," a beaming Kerr proclaimed as Kelli Kuehne, Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Golf Channel commentator Kay Cockerill teased her about the sexy shot. There were numerous humorous responses to Kerr's line, but hey, what's said in Leilei's stays in Leilei's.

Let's just say this: One of the joys of the LPGA is that it remains in touch with its roots. Its 58-year struggle for equal footing with other sports on the publicity stage has fostered an extremely healthy us-versus-them attitude around which the players unite in a sisterly effort to get the attention they deserve. Much more than in any other sport -- certainly much more than in the PGA Tour -- the players hang together, joke together and project a distinct air that they all are in this together. It's a fun group.

There are a lot of ways to measure the popularity of a sport. One is how much people are talking about it. Another is how much people are writing about it. Dan Jenkins, the esteemed Golf Digest columnist who has written 10 novels, several about golf, including the classic "Dead Solid Perfect," has made the LPGA the setting for his newest work, "The Franchise Babe," which will come out in May. Jenkins never has obeyed the political correctness police, and there will be those in Daytona Beach offended by parts of the book, but when 70-something legends notice your product, you are doing something right.

Ochoa isn't on hand for the SBS Open. She has indicated she will play fewer than the 25 events she averaged in her first five years on the LPGA and will pick up the tour in two weeks at the HSBC Champions in Singapore. Sorenstam, on the other hand, will play five of the first six tournaments as she tries to re-establish the dominance she displayed in the 2001 through 2005 seasons, when she won 43 of 104 LPGA appearances. She is 37, starting her 15th season on the tour and thinking about a business life after golf, but she also has made it clear that after an injury-plagued 2007, this year will be all about golf.

Sorenstam will have an interesting test right out of the box. How's this for an opening-round threesome: Sorenstam, defending SBS Open champion Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis? That will be the first group of the afternoon session Thursday -- teeing off right as Golf Channel comes on the air -- and it immediately will be followed by Morgan Pressel, Stacy Prammanasudh, Suzann Pettersen, 2007 Rookie of the Year Angela Park, Christina Kim, Kerr, Laura Diaz, Ai Miyazato and Carin Koch. Gee, not even Jenkins could have scripted that any better.

The notable absentees in addition to Ochoa include Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Juli Inkster -- all in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings. Also missing is Hawaii native Michelle Wie, who will return to competition next week at the Fields Open after a disappointing 2007 in which she battled injury, anxiety and her swing. By all accounts, she has found new joy in her freshman year at Stanford, where she will skip the spring quarter to try to get her competitive legs back under her on the golf course.

An interesting addition to the LPGA this year is Momoko Ueda of Japan, who earned a tour card by winning the Mizuno Classic last fall. The massive Japanese media presence that followed Miyazato for the past two years now is focused on Ueda, which could be a blessing in disguise for Miyazato, who has struggled under the weight of national expectations. With the attention elsewhere, Miyazato might fulfill her considerable potential and have the kind of breakout year Pettersen had in 2007, when she won five times, including a major championship.

The SBS Open is a 54-hole event that will end Saturday. As it is a three-round tournament, getting off to a fast start will be more important that usual. And that will make that first round even more fun to watch.

Of course, with a Saturday finish, things will be jumping Saturday night at Leilei's. Let the season begin.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and the recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."