Halfway around the globe, far from the thin air of the Tucson foothills, another magnificent golfer is making her return.
She does not have the gaggle of photographers trailing her and kicking up mini-sandstorms amid desert rocks and Jumping Cholla. She has not been charged with saving her tour.
But Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 player in women’s golf, knows that much is at stake in 2009 -- for herself, her competitors, and the LPGA. Is the sports marketplace finally ready to embrace women’s golf, which has lived in the shadow of the men’s game for so long?
“We are moving in the right direction,” said Ochoa, playing in Thailand this week before defending her title at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, starting March 5. “We are trying to work our way up there."
Ochoa, to be sure, has done her part. She is friendly, accessible and highly gifted. She hits towering tee shots that seem to run forever. She can completely overwhelm opponents, as she did last season at the HSBC when she won by 11 shots.
Along with Ochoa’s appeal, the LPGA could also be on the verge of increased visibility with Michelle Wie as a card-carrying member (her near miss at the SBS Open doubled the television ratings for Golf Channel), not to mention Paula Creamer, Suzann Pettersen, Yani Tseng, Angela Park, Morgan Pressel, Karrie Webb and newcomers Vicky Hurst and Stacy Lewis.
Though Annika Sorenstam was the game’s most recognizable and dominant player for a decade, her retirement could lead to the emergence of new rivalries and fresh storylines.
“We are all going to miss Annika, but we are here and we need to focus on the Tour,” Ochoa said. “I want to say that Annika was a great part of the Tour, but we have new players and I have many motivations. It’s very tough to stay at the top, and I am sure this is going to be a great year."
Over at the PGA Tour, commissioner Tim Finchem has asked the membership to be more interactive with sponsors, fans and even the media in a tough economic climate.
The LPGA has long operated under that belief system.
The question is, has the talent and appeal of the LPGA finally caught up with the friendliness?
“I have a good image and try to help the tour,” Ochoa said. “The level of golf is so good right now. That is a good question for the commissioner [Carolyn Bivens]. They know that I will help in any way and be very supportive.”