There was a match play event last week with truly global implications, but it wasn't the one televised on ABC. This epic tussle was seen by practically no one, but was imbued with far more gravity than anything Kevin Sutherland or Scott McCarron could muster.
When Annika Sorenstam beat Karrie Webb in a taut four-hole playoff at the Australian Ladies Masters in Ashmore, Queensland, it was a welcome reminder that golf's greatest rivalry endures despite a seemingly endless off-season. The LPGA officially gets under way this week, at the Takefuji Classic in Hawaii, but Sorenstam's victory was unofficial in name only.
Pretournament ads for the Masters dubbed it "The Main Event," and the Sorenstam-Webb slugfest more than lived up to the hype. Webb was gunning to become the first golfer on any major tour to win the same tournament five years in a row, and as always her gallery at the Masters was dotted with dozens of friends and family members who had made the 10-hour drive from Ayr, the small farming town in Queensland where Webb grew up. "I knew how much it would mean to Karrie to make history in her home country," an unrepentant Sorenstam said on Sunday, following a 69 at Royal Pines Golf Club, which allowed her to make up three strokes on Webb and force sudden death.
In an era when desperate player agents labor to manufacture rivalries in tacky made-for-TV specials, Sorenstam versus Webb has grown organically, fed by high-caliber competition in meaningful tournaments. Their rivalry has spanned two centuries and multiple continents, and amazingly, it is still gaining momentum. Sorenstam and Webb have combined to win the last five LPGA player of the year awards (the former leads 3-2), and this game of can-you-top-this has produced mesmerizing golf. In 1998 Sorenstam became the first woman to finish a season with a scoring average below 70; the following year Webb shattered the mark by more than a half stroke. In 2000 Webb put together the best season since Nancy Lopez's heyday, winning seven tournaments, including a pair of majors. Sorenstam responded in 2001 by winning eight times and setting or tying 30 LPGA records, including an unprecedented 59.
In contemporary golf nobody is even close to this dynamic duo. In fact, it is time to declare Sorenstam versus Webb golf's best rivalry in the post-World War II era.
For all the attendant mythology Nicklaus versus Palmer petered out after a few years and was characterized by the absence of memorable showdowns. Nicklaus-Watson was bookended by two unforgettable duels—the 1977 British Open at Turnberry and the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a stretch of competitive excellence that barely made it to the five-year mark. Both rivalries were cut short by a quirk of birth: Palmer was 10 years older than Nicklaus, who was 10 years older than Watson.
Sorenstam is only 31, Webb a tender 27 The saucy Aussie may have been disappointed about her defeat last week, but given the scope of her competition with Sorenstam, Webb knows what it will take to trump her indefatigable rival. "I'll have to make it three U.S. Opens in a row instead of five straight here," she said.