A new era in LPGA history officially began last week at the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions in Orlando. In his first week as commissioner, Jim Ritts smoothly dealt with Ben Wright's dismissal from CBS and Annika Sorenstam's disappointing no-show in the tour's glitzy season-opener. Then he wisely stepped aside and let Liselotte Neumann take over the show.
Everyone says that if Ritts is going to successfully fill the large shoes of departing commissioner Charlie Mechem, he'll need some stars to light the way. He already has a bright one in Sorenstam, and last week he might have found another if Neumann, Sorenstam's teenage idol, can duplicate the kind of dominating performance she turned in at Grand Cypress Resort.
Lotta, as she is called on the tour, was cast as the next Nancy Lopez when she won the 1988 U.S. Women's Open as a 22-year-old rookie from tiny Finspang, Sweden. She became the youngest professional to take the title and the first to go wire to wire since Amy Alcott in 1980. Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, a 17-year-old Sorenstam, soon to enroll at Arizona on a golf scholarship, was glued to the tube. Seven years later, Sorenstam, too, would make the Open her first LPGA victory. She went on to become the 1995 Player of the Year.
Of course, sustained success did not come immediately in the wake of Neumann's Open win. Expectations were high, and there is a feeling that Neumann has yet to live up to them—certainly not to the degree that Sorenstam has. Other than in 1994, when she won three times, Neumann has been considered more of an underachiever than a world-beater. Last year she joined the rest of the LPGA in the shadow cast by Sorenstam, who at 24 won six tournaments on four continents, plus the money titles of both the LPGA and European tours. But Neumann sent a strong message last week that the LPGA is not necessarily a one Swede town. With rounds of 67-66-72-70, she led by nine strokes after 36 holes, by eight after 54 and by as many as 12 during the final round.
Given the way Neumann played, Sorenstam made a timely, if unpopular, decision by choosing to pass up Orlando. "Obviously, when you play well you get a little busier than when you don't play well," said Neumann. "But still, she had Christmas and New Year's to rest up, and you know you can take time off in February. I think we all wish she was here."
In truth Sorenstam's November-December schedule was busier than Greg Norman's. "I don't feel like I've had an off-season," said Sorenstam, refusing to budge even when Ritts did some arm-twisting. The best she was willing to do was promise that she would play the T of C in 1997. Chrysler-Plymouth was not appeased, nor was NBC, which questioned Sorenstam's decision on the air.
So while 43 players were shaking off the rust and grinding it out in the cold and wind on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course that is likely to be one of the most difficult they will play all year, Sorenstam was in Reno moving into her new house. She may play in the Hawaiian Ladies Open in February, she may not. Her first scheduled event is the Ping/Welch's Championship in Tucson in March, when the LPGA's irregular winter schedule ends.
Neumann's blowout brought back memories of Sorenstam's 10-shot win in St. Louis at last year's GHP Heartland Classic, and her 11-stroke margin of victory was only three off the LPGA record. Neumann hit 80% of the fairways and 71% of the greens, but most important she averaged only 27.5 putts a round. "You wish you could bring this feeling with you wherever you're going," she said, "but it just doesn't work that way."
The battle for the B Flight was won by Karrie Webb, an Australian rookie who qualified by winning the Women's British Open. She shot 68 on Sunday to finish at two under, one ahead of Missie McGeorge and Laura Davies, who in the final round averaged 296 yards on the two holes used to compute driving distance. No one else broke par. Beth Daniel and Betsy King were four over, Dottie Pepper five and Patty Sheehan eight. Neumann finished at 13 under. "I had a hard time believing she was playing the same golf course," said McGeorge.
Neumann geared up for the victory the same way Mark O'Meara did before going 17 under to win the Mercedes Championships. She went skiing, in Vail, for the first time in 12 years and wasn't sure what type of swing she would bring to the T of C. Neumann hadn't played since the JC Penney Classic in early December, or touched a club—other than her putter—for three weeks. Not that a heavy workload had made much difference in the past. Many observers feel that Neumann has always had as much talent as Sorenstam, but that it has been misdirected. "Over the years she's tried to improve her swing and hit the ball a little farther," says Mark Scott, her caddie since 1988. "Now I think she realizes that she doesn't have to do anything except take what she's got and work on that."