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Power swing

The Baltimore Sun

The torch was passed quietly earlier this year, not surprising given the reserved personalities of the two players involved. It had been long anticipated, considering how Lorena Ochoa had already replaced Annika Sorenstam on top of the LPGA money list at the end of last season.

Yet it still takes a little getting used to that Sorenstam, after a five-year reign as the game's dominant female golfer and maybe the best in LPGA history, is no longer ruling her sport as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. But will anyone, even Ochoa, be in such a position of power again?

"It's tough to foresee the future, if somebody is going to dominate the tour," Sorenstam said last week. "We have some

great talent out there. If you see the teenagers, the ones in their early 20s, they have great futures ahead of themselves.

We'll see what happens."

As the McDonald's LPGA Championship heads to Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace later this week, the twentysomethings (and one prominent not-yet twentysomething) have started to take over en masse.

"I think it's good for the tour, for sure," said Ochoa, 25, who has been one of the LPGA's top players since turning professional in 2003. "You see new faces. The competition is tough. Before maybe two or three players had the possibility to win; right now there are 20, 25, 30."

Said Sorenstam: "It's just a lot more competitive. I think that's good for the game. I think the players are a lot better than they were maybe 10 years ago."

The new No. 1

For much of her first three seasons on tour, Ochoa was known more for squandering late leads than winning tournaments, especially when Sorenstam was staring her down. But that changed last year when Ochoa went from having a reputation as a choker to having one as a champion.

After losing in a playoff to Hall of Famer Karrie Webb of Australia at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Ochoa won six times and became the first player in 10 years other than Sorenstam or Webb to top the money list.

Ochoa is still in the process of proving herself worthy of the title as the world's best female player.

"Unless Lorena rolls off five or six years like Annika, I don't think you can really say that she's a dominant No. 1," said Webb, 32, who resurrected her own career with five wins last year and nearly had a sixth, losing to Se Ri Pak in a playoff at Bulle Rock.

While her peers might not be as intimidated by Ochoa as she and others appeared to be of Sorenstam, Ochoa said recently: "Since last year, my name is something on the leader board and that's important. I'm also more confident and I know that my game is on a better level."

Still looking for her first major championship, Ochoa attributes her steady rise and recent success to some of her past failures.

"I think you learn just to handle the situations better," said Ochoa, who grew up in Mexico and was a dominant player as an amateur at the University of Arizona. "I really try to learn from the bad things that happen to me and it helps."

A beloved figure back home for her willingness to give of her time and money to projects such as the two golf academies she has opened, Ochoa acknowledges that she is trying to find a balance between what she can do off the course without it affecting her game.

"This is new for me, but I think I'm prepared because it didn't happen in one week or one month," Ochoa said. "I've been learning over the years. I've been wanting to be at the top for a while and I know it's going to be tough, so I'm going to do everything it takes and hopefully I can do that."

The young Americans

When 18-year-old Morgan Pressel won this year's Kraft Nabisco, she became the youngest major champion in LPGA history. It also moved Pressel to the head of a class of up-and-coming American players that includes Paula Creamer (20), Brittany Lincicome (21), Meaghan Francella (25) and Natalie Gulbis (24).

Whether that class still includes Michelle Wie is up for debate. The 17-year-old prodigy has spent much of the 2007 season rehabilitating a wrist injury and perhaps a fragile psyche that was damaged toward the end of last season, when she finished at or near the bottom of a few men's and women's events.

While many on tour still resent the amount of attention given a player who hasn't won an LPGA event yet -- Wie's last victory was as a 13-year-old -- others are beginning to understand her relevance. Pressel, whose own amateur record was much more impressive than Wie's, knows how important Wie is to women's golf.

"She brings tons of attention when she plays," Pressel said.

Wie certainly received plenty of attention last week, first by showing up at the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika outside Charleston, S.C. -- it was her first event in five months -- and then by withdrawing after 16 holes in the opening round.

Wie was 14-over par at the time and, as a non-LPGA member, was in jeopardy of being banned from any future events this year had she shot 88 (16-over par) or higher. "I had issues with my wrist," said Wie, who added that she hoped to recover enough to play at Bulle Rock. "Shooting 88 is not what I think about."

Aside from Pressel's win, one of the more interesting stories this year has been the rise of Francella. A former Futures Tour player who finished 79th overall as a rookie last year, Francella won her first LPGA event at the MasterCard Classic in Mexico City earlier this year.

Ranked 330th in the world at the time, Francella beat Sorenstam, still No. 1.

"Nobody expected me to beat No. 1," said Francella, who is now 55th. "It was pretty cool."

Was it a fluke or perhaps a sign that Sorenstam might finally be fading?

"She's a great player, it was just my day," Francella said. "There was no kink, or whatever. She shot 66 the last day. It's not like she was in a slump. You have to have a lot of things go right to win. I put it together the last day. I don't think I got lucky. I worked hard and played well."

The foreign legion

The LPGA has long had an international flavor to it. Japan's Chako Higuchi was the first foreign-born player to win, in 1976. Ayako Okamoto, also of Japan, won 17 times between 1982 and 1992, and South African Sally Little won 15 times in a nearly 32-year career that ended in 2005.

While Ochoa has taken over as the No. 1 player in the world, the most dominant group from the same country are the South Koreans. Led by Pak, the Koreans have had other recent major champions in Jeong Jang and Birdie Kim, as well as 2006 Rookie of the Year Seon Hwa Lee.

There are also other international players on the rise.

Julieta Granada of Paraguay won the season-ending ADT Championship in 2006 and broke Creamer's rookie record for earnings. After imploding in the Kraft Nabisco, Norway's Suzann Pettersen, 26, came back to win last month's Michelob Ultra Open.

"There's definitely more depth to the tour, anybody can win, major or no major," said Granada, 20. "Everyone's working hard. The scores are getting lower, the cuts are getting tougher to make. Annika's the reason why everything is getting so much better now."

The old No. 1

Sorenstam began to show her age last year, when she won only three times, her lowest victory output in seven years and a drop from 10 wins in 2005. Though she did win her first U.S. Women's Open since 1996, Sorenstam had little else to celebrate on the course.

Another indication came in April when Sorenstam announced that she was taking time off to rehab a ruptured disc in her neck and a bulging disc in her back. Sorenstam returned for her own tournament in South Carolina last week, and planned to play this week outside Baltimore.

Sorenstam, who will turn 37 in October, is not only trying to regain her No. 1 ranking, but she is also pursuing Kathy Whitworth's all-time golf record of 88 victories. Sorenstam currently has 69 wins. Given her record that includes 43 wins in 104 events between 2001 and 2005, most feel Sorenstam isn't finished.

"I think it's not anything about dominance, it's desire," fellow Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said during Sorenstam's break from the tour. "I think she still has the desire to play well. This might be the best thing for her. To sit back and relax and get the mojo going again. I think she's going to come out firing, personally."

Said Charlotta Sorenstam, her younger sister and a tour player for 11 years: "Now that she's not No. 1 in the world anymore, she's going to work hard to get back on that top spot again. I think you'll see a lot of fire in her."

Sorenstam is not thinking about regaining her No. 1 ranking -- not yet.

"I just want to get back and play full time," she said. "My expectations are a lot lower. I have to be patient. I think for me to come out here and start thinking about No. 1, I think I'm just hurting myself. I've got to take it one day at a time and see how it goes."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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