High stakes at Kraft Nabisco

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- As stunning as it is to believe, come Sunday night Annika Sorenstam may no longer be the No. 1 female golfer in the world. She has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of women's golf since 2001, when she won eight LPGA events and began a run of six consecutive years adding at least one major championship to her trophy case. But if Lorena Ochoa wins this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year, she will take over the top spot in the Rolex Rankings.

Ochoa, who won six times last year, moved within 0.75 points of Sorenstam in the rankings on Sunday when she birdied four of the last five holes to win the Safeway International by two strokes over Suzann Pettersen, who responded by saying: "Right now she is probably the best player in the world." For more than a half decade those words would have been sacrilege among LPGA players. The question is: Will those be fighting words for Sorenstam?

The Swede, who will turn 37 in October, admits she was distracted by plans to get several businesses off the ground when she won only three LPGA events in 2006. But it is a statement in itself about Sorenstam's remarkable level of play that a season in which she won three LPGA events, including the U.S. Women's Open, two Ladies European Tour tournaments and the Women's World Cup for Sweden with Liselotte Neumann could be considered an off year. Sorenstam, whose golf academy at the Reunion Resort has its grand opening April 16, seems to be back in fighting form -- though her game is not quite there yet.

It was clear at the Safeway tournament last week that Sorenstam was sorely in need of innings pitched. It was just her second tournament of the year, and she didn't have her competitive legs beneath her, especially on the greens. But she is at a stage in her career when her main focus is adding to the 10 major championships she has won, five short of the all-time LPGA record held by Patty Berg. There was a feeling leaving Phoenix that Sorenstam had timed her season to peak this week -- at the Kraft Nabisco, her first opportunity to add to that major total this year.

What will be interesting is to see what happens if both Sorenstam and Ochoa are on their A games this week. For nearly seven years, the general thinking has been that if Sorenstam was on her game, everyone else was playing for second place. And the facts support the theory. From 2001 through 2005 she won a remarkable 43 LPGA events in 104 starts -- a 41.3 percent winning pace. Twice in that stretch she had double-digit victory seasons, in 2002 (11) and 2005 (10). And winning 10 or more tournaments in a season is something that not even Tiger Woods has done.

Ochoa, however, is a determined player who has 10 career victories and now needs to add a major championship to fill in the one gap on her résumé. In fact, with those 10 wins, the rapidly improving Mexican has the most wins without a major championship of any woman currently playing a full-time schedule. She had a good chance here last year, making an eagle on the final hole to get into a playoff with Karrie Webb that Webb won with a birdie on the first extra hole.

"Yes, I want to win a major championship and I think I am ready to win one," Ochoa said. "I want to be the No. 1 player in the world." While the strength of Sorenstam's game is relentless consistency -- fairways and greens -- Ochoa is a birdie machine powered by surprising strength for what appears to be a slight frame. In fact, Ochoa is extremely strong and last week at Safeway averaged more than 285 yards off the tee, eight yards more than the second best in driving distance.

The difference for Ochoa, whose six victories in 2006 represented a breakout season and ended Sorenstam's five-year run as Player of the Year, is that she has greatly reduced her mistakes. She set the LPGA record for most birdies in a season in 2004 with 442, but frequently turned those red numbers blue with bogeys, double bogeys and worse -- often at the most inopportune time.

Most memorable was at the Safeway tournament in 2005 when she blew a four-stroke lead with three holes to play and then lost a playoff to Sorenstam by driving into the water on the first extra hole. Later that year, at the U.S. Women's Open, Ochoa had a chance to get into the clubhouse early and post a score that could have intimidated those still on the course and possibly win, but made a quadruple bogey eight and missed tying for the lead by four strokes.

But it was in those tough times that Ochoa showed that the heart of a champion beats within her. After both meltdowns she signed her scorecard and then stood with tears streaming down her face and answered questions from the media. She has also displayed her championship form in another more private way by visiting the Mexican workers that comprise the maintenance crews at many courses, thanking them for their hard work and telling them how proud she is of them. She is talented, smart and a good person, qualities she shares with Sorenstam.

Since it is clear that Tiger Woods' rival is, at best, some 9-year-old kid we have never heard of, the LPGA has a chance to produce what could be the most compelling rivalry in golf. In fact, perhaps it already has. This week at the Kraft Nabisco tantalizes with the possibility of a Sorenstam-Ochoa shootout on Sunday. And how good would that be? Both a major championship and the No. 1 spot in the world rankings would be on the line. Sure beats Tiger Woods fending off Brett Wetterich.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.