BETHESDA -- A year ago, the talk going into the $1 million Mazda LPGA Championship concerned a not-so-hostile takeover of the tour by a new group of up-and-coming female golfers.
"They're knocking at the door," Pat Bradley, the LPGA's all-time leading money-winner and a soon-to-be Hall of Famer, said as the tournament progressed. "It's only a matter of time."
Starting with Meg Mallon's thrilling down-to-the-wire, one-shot victory over Bradley and Ayako Okamoto here at the Bethesda Country Club later that week, the new breed have long since stopped knocking. They've pushed the door in.
Mallon, a late bloomer at 29, won last year's LPGA Championship and followed it with a victory at the U.S. Women's Open. Dottie Mochrie, 26, won this year's Nabisco Dinah Shore. Among this season's five first-time winners is Brandie Burton, 20.
"When the people come out of the college programs now, they know how to play," Mallon said yesterday. "People think it's only the top 10 who feel they can win. It's the top 60."
Going into this year's Mazda LPGA Championship, which begins today and ends Sunday, the transition is in full force. None of the players who carried the tour through the 1980s has won a significant title in quite some time.
"Because we're not on television every week, there are people who're wondering if the top name players are out here anymore," veteran Amy Alcott said yesterday. "The young players are having their time."
The time of the their lives may be more precise. In the past eight weeks, no tournament champion has been older than 27. Five of the top six on this year's money list are under 30, and, of those in the top 10, only Beth Daniel, Colleen Walker and Judy Dickinson are over 35.
"The 20-something crowd," said Mochrie, who is second on the money list behind Danielle Ammaccapane, 26.
The old guard is nowhere to be seen, with Daniel the only one in the top 10. Bradley, 41, hasn't won since clinching a place in the Hall of Fame last fall with her 30th career victory. Alcott, 36, is stuck one short of qualifying and hasn't been any closer than a tie for eighth this season.
"It's a fact of life. It's a normal process in sports," said Bradley, who is 14th on this year's money list. "But myself and other players aren't moving aside. We're keeping up our guard and trying to make it as difficult as we can."
Bradley says she lost her intensity after gaining entrance to the Hall of Fame. Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who is coming back after the birth of her third child, has decided to go back to the putting stroke that helped her to a majority of her 44 career victories.
"It's hard to be confident when you're missing four-footers," said Lopez, who is 65th on the money list.
While the big-name players of the past two decades are mostly struggling, those making a name for themselves are more than just confident. Some -- most notably Mochrie, Ammaccapane and recent winner Maggie Will -- are fearless.
Some even say arrogant.
"I wouldn't call it arrogance, but if you don't have a lot of confidence, you're going to go backward," said Mochrie, who, along with Ammaccapane, has won twice this season.
The takeover has left the LPGA Tour with more quality depth than ever in its history, but also more anonymity that it probably needs. It's reminiscent of what the PGA Tour went through several years ago when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer began to fade.
"It's kind of hard to find someone out here who plays great golf and who had the kind of personality that people are attracted to," said Lopez, 35. "I saw that in watching Meg win here last year."
Mallon has certainly backed up last year's breakthrough, but can she dominate the way Lopez did in the late 1970s and early 1980s? It seems doubtful, considering the way Ammaccapane, Mochrie and Burton have moved up the money list.
But as happened before on the LPGA Tour, there's always a chance someone like Bradley or Daniel will find her game again, turning this week's LPGA Championship into a blast from the past.
"I'm not going to tease Pat about her age, when she can beat me on the golf course," said Mallon.
Mazda LPGA Championship
Site: Bethesda Country Club, today through Sunday
TV: Saturday and Sunday, 1-3 p.m., Channel 4
Field: 144 players, including defending champion Meg Mallon, three-time champion Nancy Lopez, two-time winner Beth Daniel, all-time LPGA money leader Pat Bradley and Tina Barrett of Baltimore.
Parking: Across from Walter Johnson High, at the corner of Rock Spring and Rockledge drives. Shuttle service available to golf course. Parking is $5, with proceeds going to Children's Hospital.
Tickets: Season clubhouse, $100; season grounds, $75; book of 10, good-any-day grounds vouchers, $125; daily clubhouse, $25 today and tomorrow, $30 Saturday and Sunday; grounds only, $15 today and tomorrow, $20 Saturday and Sunday. Call (800) 395-4465.