As the final leg of the USGA's triple crown, this week's U.S. Women's Open has a tough act to follow. The just completed Senior Open was an instant classic; two weeks earlier the People's Open lit up the golf world with unprecedented energy. That both of these tournaments were played at exciting new venues only added to the intrigue. Now the LPGA, so often overshadowed and underestimated, takes its turn on center stage. A letdown may seem inevitable, but the guess here is that the opposite will hold. This event has the makings of one of the best Women's Opens ever.
In an era when the legends of the men's game are leading the public hand-wringing over Tiger Woods's dominance, the LPGA has an enviable balance of power. Yes, Annika Sorenstam is the clear favorite this week, but she has two battle-tested contenders to tussle with. Se Ri Pak and Karrie Webb have taken three of the last four Opens, including the last two by Webb, who is gunning to become the first woman to bag a three-peat. The members of this Big Three are all in fine form, each having won a tour event in the last month. On Sunday night, following her come-from-behind win at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway Township, N.J., Sorenstam was asked to assess the competition. "I haven't really noticed," she woofed. "My game is peaking, and that's all I care about."
Sorenstam's laser focus has pushed her 2002 batting average to .500, as the ShopRite was her sixth victory in 12 starts. But her obsessive-compulsive drive has actually hurt her in past majors, during which she has tried too hard to force a victory. Probably the most bitter moment of Sorenstam's pro career was a missed cut at the '97 Open when she was going for three national championships in a row. Sorenstam's overall brilliance of late has diminished Webb, but it surely galls Sorenstam that her Aussie rival has more career majors—five to her four. ( Pak matched Sorenstam's total last month when she dashed Annika's Grand Slam dreams at the LPGA Championship.)
Which of these three players wins this week—and it will almost surely be one of them—depends on who can best translate her game to the unique challenges of the host course, Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kans. Sorenstam is a plodding tactician, Webb a freewheeling basher and Pak an enviable mix of both styles. All three players will be tested by Prairie Dunes's blast-furnace winds, tiny, undulating greens that average only 4,279 square feet and the famous ball-swallowing gunch that frames the fairways and greens. The Women's Open is by far the biggest tournament Prairie Dunes has hosted in its 65 years, but its reputation was secured during a Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer exhibition in 1962, the year of their epochal playoff at the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Although free of tournament pressure, Palmer could do no better than a 72 that included a double bogey out of the weeds by the 18th green, while Nicklaus labored to a 77 that included a quadruple bogey on the 9th hole.
Now here comes the Open, what Sorenstam calls "the biggest tournament we have—biggest crowds, biggest coverage, biggest purse, biggest pressure." To that list she can add one more item: biggest expectations.