WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — On her fast track to stardom, Lorena Ochoa took a detour this spring on a rainy Monday.
Unable to practice at the LPGA Tour event in Orlando, Ochoa and a friend stopped by the World Golf Hall of Fame for a visit that was unannounced and almost went unnoticed until a volunteer recognized her and alerted staff members.
Such is the humble nature of this 26-year-old dynamo from Mexico.
Odds are she will be back in five years for her induction.
The question is whether Ochoa still will be the best in women’s golf. And there is sure to be renewed skepticism about the depth of the LPGA Tour, its points system for the Hall of Fame and why so many players can qualify at such a young age.
Ochoa won her eighth tournament of the year Sunday at the ADT Championship with what might have been the best shot of the year, a 6-iron out of thick rough over the water to 30 inches that clinched a two-shot victory and the $1 million prize.
She is No. 1 in the women’s world ranking by a comparable margin to what Tiger Woods has over the men.
Likewise, she has no rival at the moment.
Lost in all the numbers – $4.3 million for the year, over $10 million for her career – was that she earned 11 points in 2007 toward the 27 points required by the LPGA Tour to be eligible for the World Golf Hall of Fame. That puts Ochoa at 22 points in only her fifth year on tour, and at this rate she will hit the magic number next season.
Then, it’s a matter of waiting until she puts in 10 years. Her induction would be in 2012 at age 31.
Her victory at Trump International came six days after Se Ri Pak became the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame at age 30. The most recent active LPGA player to be inducted was Karrie Webb in 2005. She was two months away from turning 31.
PGA Tour players must wait until they are 40 before becoming eligible for the ballot, and even that seems young. Truth is, it’s hard to find the right age for induction in a sport where no one ever retires.
Annika Sorenstam was so good that after she was inducted at 33, she earned the equivalent of 28 points the next three years by winning 21 times, four majors, two Player of the Year awards and a Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.
For years, the LPGA Tour had the toughest requirement of any shrine. Players had to win 30 times and two majors, 35 times with only one major or 40 times with no majors.
Fearful its Hall of Fame would turn into a museum if no one else qualified, the LPGA changed its criteria in 1999 to a points system. One point is awarded for a victory, Player of the Year award and Vare Trophy, two points for a major.
A year later, Sorenstam and Webb became eligible while in their 20s.
“If you look at someone like Mickey Wright, these women were on the same track,” said Judy Dickinson, the LPGA’s liaison to the World Golf Hall of Fame and a member of its advisory committee. “It’s pretty consistent with the players in the Hall of Fame.”
Webb reached 27 points in 112 starts over 4 1/2 years. Ochoa has 22 points in 124 starts over five years. That’s a lot of trophies in a short amount of time, but Nancy Lopez would have qualified under this system in just over four years, while Wright and Kathy Whitworth would not have been too far behind.
Woods would have qualified in just under four years on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t think anyone would question them getting into the Hall of Fame,” Dickinson said, referring to Webb, Sorenstam and Pak. “If you point to any of these players, would you say, ‘She shouldn’t be in there?”‘
Could the points be raised from 27?
Sorenstam’s career is starting to fade, and she has 93 points. Webb had a resurgence last year by winning five times, including her seventh major, and has 47 points. Pak is starting to pull herself out of a case of burnout and is at 30.
Then again, it’s not like everyone is beating down the door.
Laura Davies is at 25 points, needing either two victories or one major. Meg Mallon has 22 points on the strength of four majors, including two U.S. Women’s Open. If there was a vote, it would be hard to leave either one of them out.
“Our Hall has always taken the creme de la creme,” Dickinson said. “It’s always been one of the hardest to get into. To reach 27 points, you have to do special things.”
And it could very well be that these are four special players.
But the time it has taken – and will take – these players to qualify raises questions about the true depth of talent on the LPGA Tour.
The late 1970s and 1980s featured no fewer than nine players now in the Hall of Fame, and six of them qualified under the old criteria.
Rivalries these days are short-lived or not well-attended.
The Sorenstam-Webb tango lasted as long as Webb was on top of her game, a three-year stretch in which it took her only eight majors between the first and fourth legs of the career Grand Slam. After that, Sorenstam was rarely challenged.
It appears to be the same for Ochoa. She won eight times this year. Suzann Pettersen won five tournaments. The only other player with multiple victories was Paula Creamer, who went nine months between her two wins this season. She now has four for her career.
That’s not to say no one is on the horizon.
Remember, Ochoa only had three victories when Webb was inducted in 2005. Maybe when Ochoa is inducted in 2012, Creamer will be closing in on 27 points, then waiting to be inducted at age 28.