Tim Maitland in Hawaii (Ko Olina, Oahu)
Annika Sorenstam victory at the SBS Open and with it the confirmation that her neck problems of the past two years are well and truly behind her, has created one of the most eagerly anticipated encounters in the history of the LPGA Tour. The prospect of the Hall of Fame member meeting the reigning world number one Lorena Ochoa at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore next week created a palpable buzz as the players shifted base from the North Shore of Oahu island to Ko Olina in the south for this week's Fields Open.
"In our era there hasn't been anything like this!" said American Christina Kim, a five-year veteran on the LPGA tour, of the upcoming encounter with Ochoa, who skipped the two season-opening Hawaii events.
"Annika and Webbie (Karrie Webb) went back and forth in the early to mid-90s. Before them there was a rivalry between Beth Daniel and Nancy Lopez, but this is different. It's not that Lorena overtook Annika's place, and it's not a Tiger-Phil thing, because there's no animosity involved. It's that we haven't seen these two together at the level they are now. It's very exciting!" she added.
Sorenstam herself said after her victory that she felt great about the statement she had made after her demoralizing struggle with a ruptured disc.
"It's really gratifying to see that the preparation I've done has paid off and now I really want to put '07 behind me and say "Hey! I'm a contender" and I intend to be all year," she purred.
"I think it's going to be easier for the rest of the year for me knowing that I'm swinging great and knowing the desire is there."
Sorenstam's win was a popular one amongst her fellow players, who have watched one of the their legends fall just short of her own ridiculously high standards ever since the neck injury started to bother her in mid-2006.
"It was great to see Annika win. She wanted to come out and make a statement and she's done that. Some people speculated that she'd never get back to the top again and she's gone a long way to silencing that talk," explained Christina Kim.
Now the talk is of the acid test of Lorena Ochoa's rise to the top of the game. She dominated last year, winning eight times, while Suzann Pettersen of Norway took another five trophies. Ochoa was masterful, but now everyone is licking their lips in anticipation of seeing how she shapes up in Singapore against a Sorenstam back to somewhere near her best.
"It's gonna be crazy!" declared one LPGA Tour insider.
"Lorena's gone whoosh and made last year her coming out party and now Annika's back. It's going to be amazing when those two girls go head to head. And that's without throwing Suzann into the mix."
The head-to-head will happen over Tanah Merah's Garden Course, a layout that demands an immaculate short game, and the sense of anticipation stretches all the way up to the sponsors themselves.
"The recipe is right for this to become one of those wonderful moments in sport that you are proud to have been there for, which I think is a sign of the growing importance of Asia as a venue for international sports. There are a few special points in every sport that have become legendary, whether it's the Mohammed Ali and George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", or an even closer comparison might be Ronaldo's comeback from injury to win the 2002 World Cup for Brazil. In men's golf it would be seeing one of the legs of the Tiger Slam," declared HSBC's Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan
"For women's golf this could be the time; the time when you say "I was there when Annika and Lorena met at the top of their games". Then again, there are so many other proven winners from all over the world in the HSBC Women's Champions field that there are dozens of other golfers capable of lifting our trophy."
Ochoa herself is already salivating at the prospect of more competition.
"This is going to be a fun year," she told USA Today before the season started.
"I want to make sure I stay at the top. I want to win tournaments, and why not some majors?"
Staying number one might be the easiest of those goals. With six wins in 2006 - three of them after Sorenstam's barren run began - Ochoa has accumulated more than twice the points than Pettersen, her closest rival in the Rolex Rankings. Sorenstam, who started last week in fourth place, has changed her tone slightly on the subject. At the turn of the year the 37-year-old was adamant that she was going to claim back her number one status. After winning the SBS Open, she admitted it might not be this year that she reclaims the crown.
"I'm not sure if it is possible," she confessed.
The Singapore showdown will give the first indication as to which of the two queens of the ladies game will reign supreme, but, as Christina Kim pointed out, given the swathe of new talent that has emerged since Sorenstam was last at her peak it could be anything but a two-horse race this year.
"The way the Paula Creamer made her splash – second on the money list and fastest to win US$1 million – then there's Morgan Pressel winning her first Major last year and Brittany Lincicome and Suzann and her five wins. When people look back in 20 years time, they'll still be talking about this period as one of the most exciting in LPGA history," she said.
Picture by Alex Broadway/SWpix.com