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Among golf’s burning questions one rose to the top Sunday: Can the LPGA trump the PGA Tour? You had to consider it as two dramas played out on opposite coasts this past weekend. Phil Mickelson had a two-touchdown lead over the field at the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Georgia, and then, mercifully, it rained, giving NBC an excuse to show footage of last year’s sudden-death finish. When play continued he eagled the last hole to win by 13 strokes, the third largest margin of victory, we were told, in the last 50 years. Cue the wife, cue the kids, strike the set, see ya next year.
With the Tour’s new, reshuffled schedule, starting in 2007, the BellSouth won’t be a Masters tune-up, casting doubt on what kind of field ATL golf fans will see at the TPC at Sugarloaf.
Meanwhile, on CBS, viewers were treated to a captivating finish in which a whole lot of mascara and potential (Natalie Gulbis, Lorena Ochoa and Michelle Wie) lost by an eyelash to grit and good fortune (Hall of Famer Karrie Webb) at the LPGA’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, California.
Webb may have seized her seventh major, but the lead role belonged to Wie, 16, bidding for her first professional title and validation, at last, after an avalanche of hype. Her inability to make birdie from behind the 18th green, a simple up and down, exposed remaining cracks in her short game.
Chris Couch, who played with Wie for two rounds at this year’s Sony Open told me recently, “She’s got some maturing to do, there’s no doubt about that, but I was the same way when I was 16.” His advice to Wie was pretty simple. “I’m starting to manage my game to where the past is the past and there’s nothing you can do about it. Having kids puts things in perspective, but right now her whole life is golf. She’s got a lot of learning to do, and the only advice I gave her was, ‘Don’t take this game too seriously, it’s just a game.’ She’s going to do fine, she’ll be a Hall of Fame player if she stays healthy. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with her career.”
So is everybody else, which was only one reason why the Nabisco had the upper hand over the sleepy BellSouth. Rain doused Duluth, but the sun and stars blessed Rancho Mirage. There was Natalie Gulbis, she of the blonde tresses and Maxim-esque bathing suit calendar, who, like Wie, was searching for her first W. She birdied the difficult par-3 17th hole but made a disappointing par on the cupcake par-5 18th to tie for third with Wie, one shot out of the playoff. There was Ochoa, who never looked as cool under pressure as she did while making an eagle to force a playoff with Webb, which ended quickly with the veteran’s seven-foot birdie putt on 18. (Ochoa’s 12-footer leaked right.)
LPGA or PGA? The ratings may or may not show it, but on this day it wasn’t a fair fight. The BellSouth was so over by the time Mickelson had reached the 18th hole he actually gave an interview to NBC’s Roger Maltbie while walking to the green. It was a surreal moment, as if we were suddenly watching the Champions Tour and Mickelson was Morris Hatalsky.
What’s it all mean?
You’d never get a green jacket to admit it, but the Masters has a tough act to follow for the first time in a long time. It’s not that Webb won her seventh major. It’s that Gulbis, Ochoa and Wie are so clearly about to explode. The LPGA has closed the gap on its big brother. The women, the girls, are more camera-ready, and more reliable to pop up on our televisions when it matters most, than the men. Missing from the appetizing 2006 Kraft Nabisco were Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel—they finished T6, T24, T13, respectively—but, hey, not even the Snack Fairy can get ALL the stars to line up at once. Besides, the presence of so many marquee talents on the LPGA merely increases the odds of an exciting finish the next time the women tee it up for big money, history and bragging rights over the men in entertainment value if not the actual Nielsen ratings.
One more big break may be all LPGA commish Carolyn Bivens needs to get Tour pooh-bah Tim Finchem running scared, and she may get it. Bruised feeling abound at ABC and ESPN, both of which came up empty on the PGA Tour’s next TV contract. If they marshal their considerable forces to air the LPGA as a viable and sometimes superior alternative to Tiger and Phil, the game is on.
Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE.