Sunday, February 17, 2008

SBS Open Saturday: #70; or, She's Baaaa-aack

Hound Dog summed up the last day of the SBS Open so well (a paraphrase of his synopsis might read, "Annika Sorenstam's second birdie in a row, a 25-foot putt on 17, clinched her 70th career LPGA victory, as challenger after challenger just couldn't push herself past the -8 barrier") that I have little to add to his account. With my parents in town I thought the girls and their grandparents would be able to curl up on their hotel beds watching the Golf Channel while I live-blogged the back 9 via my dad's laptop's wireless connection. But the lack of a certain cable network on the hotel's recently-scaled-back TV options torpedoed that scenario. So instead of offering my own overview of SBS Saturday--Mulligan Stu's will do you just fine, and even the AP story is better than usual (probably because they yanked Doug Ferguson off the LPGA beat and replaced him with Jaymes Song)--I'll ramble on a bit about what Annika's first win on the LPGA since the fall of 2006 means.

Let's start with Annika's interview. Putting aside her struggle with verb tense in an obviously prepared opening statement (hey, the Koreans aren't the only ones on tour for whom English is not a mother tongue!), let's focus on the implications of what she said: "I could not have asked for a better start. We all have talked so much about '07. I think it's time to talk about '08. My clubs do the talking this particular week.... It's very gratifying to see that the preparation I've done paid off and now I really want to put '07 behind and say, 'Hey, I'm a contender,' and I intend to be that all year." Translation: ready or not, Lorena, here I come!

If that weren't clear enough, check out this artless dodge to the obvious follow-up question (with a noun-pronoun agreement problem of its own):

Q. What kind of statement do you think this makes? With Lorena playing so well last year and you were injured last year, what kind of statement do you think this victory sends to them?

ANNIKA SORENSTAM: You tell me. I don't know how you feel about it. But I feel great. I'm excited to be back. I got a win here. I think that's going to be easier the rest of the year for me. Again, knowing that I'm swinging better again and knowing that the desire is there.

Those are two key components to play well. Last year the desire wasn't there and my swing was definitely not there. Now it is. Like I said, those are two important components you need to play well and to be the top player out here.

Contrast Annika's tone here with the graciousness, politeness, and tentativeness of her interviews in 2007, even before she understood the extent and severity of her neck and back injuries that interrupted it. If she's talking this tough after a very very very close win, imagine where her confidence will be when she finally runs away with one this year.

More on that prediction in a bit, but for now let's turn to Laura Diaz's interview. Diaz, who was tied at -8 with Sorenstam through 6, only to double 7 and struggle to get back to -8 over the next 11 holes, focused on her family and playing partner for most of the interview, even when asked directly about Annika:

Q. Is it different chasing Annika as opposed to chasing Jane [Park] or anybody else?

LAURA DIAZ: Personally, I have a hard enough time keeping up with myself. So I'm not out there chasing anybody. Chasing down the birdies, that's about it. We had a ton of great play this week. Annika played incredible. And Jane, I played with her today.

She's just a wonderful young lady and really we enjoyed ourselves out there together and that's really nice. This is a challenging life we lead in the fact that you are competing against other players, but it's nice when you don't feel like that's what's going on. You feel like you're competing with a golf course. That's how Jane and I played today, I think.

So my answer would be no, because I'm not chasing Annika or chasing any other players, just battling it in my head more than anything.

All of which is no doubt true, but check out the final exchange:

Q. Are you happy right now with the results? Do you feel good finishing second?

LAURA DIAZ: Yes, I feel great. But my goal is to get in the (LPGA Tour and World Golf) Halls of Fame. I need wins to get there. Seconds, unfortunately, don't put you there in that spot. I'll keep working, and I'm confident that it's around the corner.

Good for this two-time LPGA winner to be aiming high--only 4 people in the Pak generation are higher than her on the career money list, but everyone near her except Kelli Kuehne has won more often than the 4-time-Solheim Cupper. Yet as she noted while commenting on the success of her former mentee, Russy Gulyanamitta, whom she tied for second, along with Jane Park, with her 18-hole birdie, "I think that our Tour is extremely deep with talent. And I think you're going to see a lot of that this year." Reading between the lines, you can't help but feel that Diaz knows full well just how hard it's going to be to rack up wins in a season in which Ochoa and Annika are duking it out week in and week out and any dozen or three in the field can hang right there with them any given week.

That's right: a dozen or three. Who would have predicted struggling mid-career pros like Gulyanamitta, Kuehne, or Erica Blasberg would finish in the top 12 this week, much less at various times been right in the mix? How many others from their generation might step up next week, or the week after, or...? Who would have thought rookies like Momoko Ueda and Ya Ni Tseng and Super Sophs like Angela Park, In-Kyung Kim, and Jane Park would come out of the gates quite so fast? (Well, everyone who finished ahead of me in this week's PakPicker, that's who, for starters!) How many other of their classmates will join them this season? Just look at the names of those who had to settle for top 20s: Paula Creamer, Hee-Won Han, Seon-Hwa Lee, Angela Stanford, Suzann Pettersen, Jeong Jang. Consider those who would kill to have done even that well: Candie Kung, Meena Lee, Sherri Steinhauer, and Pat Hurst at T25, Young Kim, Stacy Prammanasudh, and Na Yeon Choi at T32, Morgan Pressel, Natalie Gulbis, and Hee Young Park at T51, and Christina Kim and Jee Young Lee at T68. Note the track record and potential of those who missed the cut completely whom I didn't even mention yesterday: Inbee Park, Karin Sjodin, and Brittany Lincicome, to name a few people I expect to contend often this year. And remember that Mi Hyun Kim, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster, Catriona Matthew, and Shi Hyun Ahn are saving the start of their LPGA season till Singapore--and Laura Davies will be waiting even longer. And maybe, just maybe, non-member Michelle Wie--who joins Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak in the Fields field next week--will be inspired by fellow teen non-member Ji-Yai Shin's success this week. I'll stop here: that's more than 3 dozen, without even trying hard.

So what should we take from this week?

Conclusion #1: Yes, Annika is back. Like Lorena last year, she'll measure her disappointing tournaments not by failing to make the top 10 but by failing to be in contention on the final 9 holes. And, like Lorena last year, she will run away with at least one tournament before 2008 is over.

Conclusion #2: With a player of Annika's talent, experience, mental toughness, and stature so regularly being in the mix down the stretch this year, this will be a multiple-win season for her.

Conclusion #3: Unlike my response to Karrie Webb's win in Australia, I don't think the prospect of a multiple-win season for Sorenstam affects the prospects for my pre-season prediction all that much. Creamer and Seon Hwa Lee didn't have particularly stellar tournaments this week but still made decent money (for the LPGA, that is) and showed the kind of grit that made me put them ahead of Sorenstam in the first place; Jee Young Lee will be just fine; and Ochoa is #1 until Annika shows she can post more than a few wins this season.

Still, all this puts Annika's pre-tournament season's greetings blog post in perspective, eh? The odds that this season will be a "memorable" one, as she predicted there, have just gone all the way up to 100%.

[Update: Hound Dog offers his own reflections on Annika's win and a highlight reel.]


spyder said...

Personally for me i would like to see these predictions for Annika come through by the end of 2008. It would be great to see her put together another spectacular year and then fade back with the best of the "elders." There is so much golf for the youth to play in the next few years. A stellar Annika year would be good for the LPGA and for the young players themselves to personally experience.

The Constructivist said...

I hear you, spyder, but what I'd really love is a little more parity among the top 30. While Annika v. Lorena would be great drama for a season or three (or as long as Annika wants to continue playing--hopefully longer!), what would be even better is the kind of free-for-all we had last week every week. Annika and Lorena had better keep pushing each other, that is, because the young guns are coming for them...I hope!