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LPGA Tour 2006 - Annika Sorenstams dominance ended

Question: Is Annika Sorenstam still the best women's golfer in the world?

Answer: Well, yeah. Of course she is.

But as the 2006 LPGA Tour season unfolded, it was clear that Sorenstam's stranglehold on the women's game loosened a little, leaving space for a handful of players to climb inside and look around.

For the first time in six years -- and only the third time in a decade -- someone other than Sorenstam won the Rolex Player of the Year award. Two players won more titles than she did, and both finished with more money.

And while three years ago the biggest story in golf was Sorenstam's desire to play against the men, this year that seemed like old news. As did Sorenstam's allure as the token dominant female athlete in the world.

Which is not to say the Sorenstam Era in women's golf is over. It's not. She may be the fittest 35-year-old golfer in the world, man or women.

But parity painted the portrait of this year's tour, for better or worse.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Lorena Ochoa

Also the LPGA's Rolex Player of the Year, Ochoa is less of a no-brainer pick than a 'Who deserves it more?' decision. Her season didn't include a major win, but it did include a money title, 18 top-5 finishes and six wins.

Ochoa entered the season with three career titles and ended it with nine. She was one of only two players with two or more starts who made every cut. She won nearly $2.6 million and claimed the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.

She was the best women's player in the world this year.

"This has been a fantastic year," Ochoa said after she finished second at the season-ending ADT Championship. "I learned a lot."

Ochoa's first three wins came at the LPGA Takefuji Classic, the Sybase Classic and the Wendy's Championship for Children. Her most significant win may have come at the Corona Morelia Championship in her native Mexico -- "I have no way to compare this," she said -- which touched off a streak of three consecutive victories.

And she would have won a major, too, if Karrie Webb hadn't holed out for eagle on the 72nd hole of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

TOURNAMENT OF THE YEAR: The Kraft Nabisco Championship

It's a finish that will be referenced for years, a replay that will be cued up any time an LPGA player holes a miraculous shot late in a major championship. It will anchor the opening TV montage for next year's Kraft Nabisco.

Webb's eagle on the 18th at Mission Hills literally couldn't have come at a better time.

Using a pitching wedge from 116 yards, Webb changed the course of the tournament with one swing. In a gust of emotion after her ball found the bottom of the cup, she screamed "Yes!" and touched off a celebration that was more than a little awkward -- if only because she, like us, was stunned.

Two groups later, Ochoa also eagled the 72nd hole to force a playoff back at the 18th. Webb chipped to seven feet and birdied, while Ochoa missed her 18-foot try and a chance for her first major.

The tournament will be remembered for Webb's shot, and also for a Hall of Famer putting away one of the tour's rising young stars.

But it should further be remembered for the players who didn't win, like 16- year-old Michelle Wie, who lipped-out a 10-foot birdie try at the 18th hole to miss the playoff. And like tour starlet Natalie Gulbis, who made a late push but also missed the playoff by just one shot.

SHOT OF THE YEAR: "A perfect wedge"

Although Ochoa also eagled the 72nd hole at the season's first major -- knocking a 5-wood within six feet to force the playoff -- Webb's was undeniably more dramatic.

It helped her win her first title since 2004, and her first major since the 2002 Women's British Open.

"It was just a perfect wedge and I hit it straight at the pin," said Webb. "I knew I needed to make birdie and when it was in the air, I wanted it to just get close. Then it went in and I think I nearly had a heart attack when that happened."

Two months later, Webb got a taste of her own medicine when Se Ri Pak nearly holed out in a playoff to beat her at the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Julieta Granada

All due respect to Seon-Hwa Lee, the LPGA's Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year, but Julieta Granada deserves the award more.

Granada finished fourth on the money list -- behind Ochoa, Webb and Sorenstam -- with more than $1.633 million. Most of that came from the tour-record $1 million check she received for winning the season-ending ADT Championship, but that doesn't negate her other impressive stats.

She made 26 cuts in 30 tournaments and had two second-place finishes, four top-5s and seven top-10s. She was also the only player ever to make the ADT Championship her first victory.

"This is just unbelievable. I'm so excited I can't think," she gushed afterward.

GOOD YEAR: Solid veterans, and a steady sophomore

Karrie Webb: She followed her victory at the Kraft Nabisco with wins at the Michelob Ultra Open, Evian Masters, Longs Drugs Challenge and Mizuno Classic. Her five wins were surpassed only by Ochoa's six. She finished second to Ochoa on the money list with $2.09 million.

Cristie Kerr: Only Granada's win at the ADT kept Kerr from being fourth on the money list, where it looked like she had cemented herself. She tied Sorenstam with three wins and had 18 top-10 finishes, second only to Ochoa.

Sherri Steinhauer: She ran away with her second Women's British Open title in August, and first since it was declared a major in 2001. She also had six top-10 finishes at the age of 43.

Paula Creamer: Like Ochoa, she made the cut in every tournament she played this season. Last year's Rookie of the Year didn't win, but she posted 14 top-10s and seven top-5s.

WEIRD YEAR: Statistical anomaly

Heather Young missed just one cut in 27 starts, but her only top-10 finish was a tie for ninth at the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open in April. Seemingly steady in the opening rounds of tournaments, she nevertheless finished 39th on the money list.

BAD YEAR: ...for her

Annika Sorenstam won three times -- including her 10th major at the U.S. Women's Open -- and she finished third on the money list. Still, 2006 has to be viewed as a step down for the world No. 1.

Even after she won the MasterCard Classic in March, it was clear that Sorenstam wouldn't approach the 10 titles she claimed in 2005. Something was off.

At the Michelob Ultra Open in May, Sorenstam missed the cut for the first time since the 2002 Women's British Open -- a streak of 68 tournaments. She missed another cut at the season-ending ADT Championship, where she showed up as the two-time defending champion and a four-time winner.

"There's not much more I can do," Sorenstam said that Friday afternoon.

She was talking about her first two rounds, but we have a feeling it had a little to do with the entire season.

 

 




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