Report by Tim Maitland
Annika Sorenstam started this week's Fields Open in Hawaii's Ko Olina Resort with one eye on next week's HSBC Women's Champions and her first encounter of the year with reigning world number one Lorena Ochoa.
The 37-year-old World Golf Hall of Fame member has emerged from a two-year injury-induced funk, proving that she is back to her best with last week's SBS Open victory and set up a fascinating encounter when Ochoa starts her season in Singapore next week. And Annika is up for it!
"I love head-to-head stuff and I'm ready," beamed the Swede.
"She's played fantastic golf and I know I have to elevate my game, but that's what it's all about. I think it's going to be great. I think you have a fantastic field (at the HSBC Women's Champions), you can't ask for any better and it's a privilege to be part of it. For me it's fun, whatever happens this week, to have had a good start and I'm ready to face everybody. I'm excited!"
Sorenstam's not the only one! Her victory on the opposite side of Oahu Island last week has propelled her from fourth to second in the Rolex Rankings. It represented back-to-back wins as she ended her first winless season on the LPGA in 23 years by winning the Ladies European Tour's Dubai Ladies Masters victory in December. For the first time since Ochoa started her run of 14 wins in two seasons she's facing Annika playing what the Scandinavian like's to refer to as "Annika Golf".
"We're now in the position where Annika's healthy. She's more like the Annika we knew in 2006 and Lorena coming into 2008 healthy, excited and ready to go. So this will be the first time that we see the two of them playing at their best, feeling at their best," said the LPGA's COO Chris Higgs adding that Annika's absence has created one of the most fascinating head-to-head in decades.
"You'd have to go back a while to find two people who are this good, this talented, this dedicated that people are this interested in. There's a lot of LPGA history, but this is going to be a very, very fascinating period to watch. When we had the Annika-Karrie Webb rivalry, Karrie was definitely coming out of her really strong period of 99-2000-2001 and Annika was about to become that mega-winner where she would win six, seven, eight times ever year. They sort of criss-crossed. I don't think we saw head-to-head, consistent for a couple of years, Annika at her very best and Karrie at her very best. We saw it on occasions, but we didn't reach a point where you would say "I don't know whose better". Now, I know there's a 10-year difference between Annika and Lorena, but I think that by the middle of this year people will still be saying "I don't know" and that's good."
Sorenstam, the first player to pass US$20 million in tournament earnings in LPGA history, is happy to settle the argument in Lorena's favour for the time being, saying the Mexican has earned that honour.
"Last year I wasn't a contender. Since she's been number one I haven't played well," she said.
"There's no doubt that Lorena is the best golfer now, then we'll see what happens the next few months. I don't want to take anything away from her. She's played some awesome golf and I'm just looking forward to playing some good golf myself."
The beauty of the match up is that no-one, not even the players themselves, know how the two compare, because "Lorena Golf" and "Annika Golf" have never come together.
"Not yet!" exclaimed Annika
"We'll see!" she added with a twinkle in her eye and a laugh in her voice.
Laughter might be a signature tune to the Annika-Lorena showdown. While Tiger and Phil might share nothing more than icy stares and perfunctory hand shakes, Sorenstam says that she and Lorena have plenty in common.
"Personality-wise we're both very similar. We're both family people. You know, we're both close to our parents, close to our siblings," she explained.
"As a golfer she's a little bit more of a feel player and I might be a little bit more of a technical player. If you look at our swings she's more flowing, a little "handsy". My swing's a little more compact. Distance-wise we're about the same. She might be a little bit longer with the driver, but other than that iron-wise we're very similar.
"She has that Hispanic, Mexican more emotional side where I'm a bit more of a Viking; I'm a little cooler, at least if you look at my face. Those are our differences, but overall we're very similar."
That similarity extends to their ability, which is what makes the Singapore showdown so compelling; compelling enough that Annika admits if she wasn't personally involved she'd be out there watching too!
"Sure! I would! This is a good time for the LPGA. There are some other players - Suzann's playing some great golf, Paula (Creamer), Cristie (Kerr) as well – it's a good time for the LPGA and a great time to be a fan."
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images