More is better—ah, American culture reduced to three words. This is relevant to the LPGA as it heads into the homestretch of the 20th century because it provides the basis for second-year commissioner Jim Ritts's catchy new slogan. He calls the LPGA the More Tour. Translation: more events (43) than ever before, more of them on TV (31), more prize money ($30.2 million) and more fans.
Ritts takes considerable pride in those hard-earned numbers, but what was showcased last week at the LPGA's season opener, the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions, was more great golf by the two players who, over the past two years, have been most responsible for the tour's increased popularity. Annika Sorenstam, 26, dominated the 1995 season, won back-to-back U.S. Opens and could parallel-park a fairway wood shot if called upon. Karrie Webb, 22, is the long-hitting Australian who was the tour's rookie sensation in '96, winning four times to become the first woman to earn $1 million in one season. Webb also did Sorenstam a good turn by bumping the bashful Swede—she has joked that she would rather lose a tournament than make a speech after winning one—out of the spotlight. Last weekend Sorenstam and Webb made up the final pairing both days at Weston Hills Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, the first time they had gone head-to-head in a tour event for the final two rounds. Someday, if the LPGA is lucky, we'll look back on this tournament as the start of a great rivalry.
The women's game can use a rivalry like this. The tour already has an A division—eight players combined to win nearly three quarters of the tournaments last year. Besides Sorenstam and Webb, that group includes Laura Davies, still the longest, strongest and best player on tour; Emilee Klein, a former NCAA champ who won back-to-back tournaments last year in her second season; Meg Mallon and Liselotte Neumann, who have won major championships by relying on their experience and short games to make up for a lack of length off the tee; Michelle McGann, a basher who has learned how to win; and Dottie Pepper, the tour's leader in the will-to-win category.
Thanks to a blistering putter, Sorenstam won the first of what we hope will be many showdowns with Webb. Tied going into the final round, Sorenstam closed with a 66, her second such score of the week, to pull away from Webb for a four-shot victory. It was close until Webb three-putted the 14th green to fall two strokes behind. Then Sorenstam birdied the next three holes, sinking putts of 15, 20 and five feet. "I've never seen her hole so many long putts," said Sorenstam's caddie, Colin Cann. "When she putts well, she can win any tournament."
The closing blitz came after the Swede had birdied three of the first four holes. Webb made just one birdie in that stretch, although she had hit shots closer to the flag than Sorenstam on three of the holes. "It was pretty discouraging," Webb said. "I was second to putt, and she holed it every time. She was making them from everywhere."
That frustration shows how far Webb has come in one season. Last year she was thrilled simply to play in this event, which Sorenstam, after her whirlwind '95 season, chose to skip. Webb's second-place finish then came as a total surprise. Sorenstam's victory last week brought a certain symmetry to the rivalry in the making. If you're keeping score, Sorenstam and Webb have played in 17 of the same LPGA events. Both players have three wins and 11 top-10 finishes. Sorenstam has finished ahead of Webb nine times while Webb has had nine fewer total shots.
Similar in age and ability, they should be as good for each other as they are for their tour. Having Jack Nicklaus as a standard, for example, pushed Lee Trevino and Tom Watson to greater heights in the '70s and '80s, just as the splashy arrival of Tiger Woods has energized today's PGA Tour. "I get inspired playing with her," Sorenstam says of Webb. "It inspires me to sec someone hit a good shot every hole. The way she played last year, I almost felt I needed to play better. It's hard to beat a year like I had in '95, winning player of the year and the Vare Trophy, but my stroke average ended up being half a shot better per round last year." Was last week's victory, Sorenstam's seventh on the LPGA tour, sweeter because she beat Webb? "Maybe a little bit," Sorenstam says. "It was nice to beat somebody who played so well the year before."
And the rivalry? Neither player is prepared to call it one just yet. "There are other players—Laura, Michelle, Dottie, Kelly Robbins," Sorenstam says. "This week it just happened to be us two." But they are the two most likely to challenge Davies's position as the top player in women's golf. Sorenstam has already shown a knack for winning the big one, and Webb has the kind of power that is almost a prerequisite for dominance. Their styles of play are different. Sorenstam, average off the tee, plays a slight fade and is deadly from the fairway with a wood or an iron. She ranked second in greens hit in regulation last year. Webb ranked third. Sorenstam also appears more at ease with a putter in her hands, although who wouldn't after the week she had on the smooth surfaces at Weston Hills? Webb plays a draw, ranked seventh in driving distance last year (249.58 yards) and routinely blew it 20 yards or more past Sorenstam last weekend. When Sorenstam reached her tee shot at the 6th hole on Saturday, she saw that Webb's ball had gone 50 yards farther. "Why don't you go ahead and hit driver next time?" Sorenstam joked as Webb walked past.
Neither player had expected to be sharp last week. Webb was nervous in this event last year because it was her LPGA debut. This time, after barely touching a club for two weeks during a post-Christmas break Down Under, she was nervous because she didn't know if her game was ready. It was. She was the only player in the 37-woman field to break par last Thursday when 30-mph winds turned errant shots into disasters. Webb's 69 included bogeys on three of the four par-3s. She made a triple bogey the next day—going bunker to bunker and four-putting from the fringe—something she hadn't done all year in '96, but also made eight birdies and shot 68. "Go through my round?" she said in the press room later. "We'll be here for an hour."
Webb didn't make a double bogey last year until April. She got that out of the way last week in the third round. Her drive at the 16th hole found the middle of the fairway and the middle of a sand-filled divot. "That's one of the rules they ought to change," Webb said, only half joking, before describing the subsequent six-iron approach shot that she deposited into a lake. Still, she shot 69 and shared the lead with Sorenstam. Webb was involved in another odd episode on Sunday when a spectator accidentally kicked her ball on the 6th hole. A marshal pointed out the exact spot where Webb's ball had come to rest before being kicked—in a depression. Forced to take the marshal's word and replace her ball in a horrible lie, Webb protested to a rules official and was allowed a free drop. "Most efficient marshal I've ever seen," Webb said.