<
>

Women's Open is a wide open championship

For the first time in a half decade, Annika Sorenstam isn't going into a major championship as the prohibitive favorite. Part of the reason is because she's having -- for her -- an off year. The other component that makes this week's U.S. Women's Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club so compelling is the play of Sorenstam's competition. This U.S. Open is truly wide open. The roll call of winners this year speaks to the depth and breadth of talent on the LPGA Tour. And it could be the Open that will provide the stage for the best in the game to get it all together on the same week and produce a memorable major championship.

If anyone had said when the season started that come July highly-touted Morgan Pressel and Japanese star Ai Miyazato would be in the midst of being dusted in the Rookie of the Year race by 20-year-old Korean Seon Hwa Lee; that last year's top rookie, Paula Creamer, would be winless; and that Michelle Wie would get more attention for missing a spot in the men's U.S. Open by five strokes than she got for nearly winning two LPGA majors, the only conclusion would be that the tour is in trouble. But nothing could be further from the truth.

While some of the pre-season storylines have yet to materialize, some unexpected twists have proven to be even better. Karrie Webb is clearly back and ready to make a run at reclaiming the No. 1 spot in women's golf she occupied in 2000. She proved her win at the Kraft Nabisco Championship was no fluke when she won again at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill and then finished second in the next LPGA major -- the McDonald's LPGA Championship -- in a playoff. And how about who Webb lost to at the McDonald's? Se Ri Pak, who has had the driver yips for the better part of two years, looks like she, too, wants to reunite the Big Three by joining Webb in giving Sorenstam all the competition she can handle.

While a return of the Big Three would be a ton of fun, they are not the only tour members engaged in the most wide-open battle for Player of the Year honors in a decade.

Fellow Hall-of-Famer Juli Inkster won the Safeway tournament in Phoenix and, if she can find some consistency with the putter, could capture her third U.S. Women's Open at Newport.

Cristie Kerr is the only other American besides Inkster to win this year and is much better at closing out tournaments than she was in the past.

And then there is Lorena Ochoa, who joins Webb as the only two-time winner this year. The Mexican sensation has put some painful late-round collapses behind her (see: last year's Open, where she finished with an 8 and missed tying for the lead by four strokes) and appears to be one of the top contenders to take over No. 1 from Sorenstam, whenever that eventuality should occur.

When Jeong Jang, the defending Weetabix Women's British Open champion, won the Wegman's tournament in Rochester on Sunday she became the eighth different Korean to win on tour this year. The runner-up at Rochester, Julieta Granada of Paraguay, has had an extremely solid season and joins Brittany Lang, who tied for second with Pressel in last year's Open as an amateur and was T-3 at Rochester, in the Rookie of the Year race. The top five in rookie points are Seon Hwa Lee, Miyazato, Pressel, Granada and Lang.

And then there are the Koreans -- the other Koreans, the ones besides Pak, Jang, Mi Hyun Kim and Hee Won Han. Kim and Han have won this year, as has Lee. Strangely, Joo Mi Kim and Meena Lee also have won, but both forgot to enter the Open before the May 5 deadline, even though they were fully exempt into the field. Sung Ah Yim also has an LPGA victory in 2006, and Shi Hyun Ahn always seems to appear on the leaderboard. Also in the field is defending Open champion Birdie Kim, who took home the title at Cherry Hills last year by holing a bunker shot on the final hole.

Wie, who was tied for the lead after 54 holes last year at Cherry Hills and then finished T-23 after a closing-round 82, needed her second special exemption from the USGA in three years to get into the field, angering some players who felt she should either join the LPGA Tour (as a member she would qualify off the money list) or go to a qualifier and earn her way into the tournament. Unlike Pressel, the 16-year-old Wie has never asked the LPGA to waive its 18 minimum age. Some feel she might never join the tour since her apparent real goal is to play against the men and because she is making large sums of money in overseas appearance fees that would be trickier to obtain if she were an LPGA member and playing under its restrictions.

The talented Hawaiian has demonstrated impressive mastery of every club in the bag save one -- the putter -- this year. Not only is she long off the tee, but she has other shots -- a skillful knockdown that will come in handy at Newport if the wind blows, for example -- that few on the LPGA possess. While she has yet to win an LPGA event and is in fact winless in the almost three years since the 2003 Women's Public Links, Wie has to be considered among the favorites anytime she tees it up. She has that much talent.

It has been 10 years since Sorenstam won the U.S. Women's Open, and in that decade Webb and Inkster have won two and Pak another. All four come into this year's tournament with every reason to expect they will be on the leaderboard come Sunday. Throw into the mix Wie, Ochoa, Kerr and Creamer, and it could lead to an exciting Sunday at Newport.

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine