Its Annika Sorenstam, the No. 1 woman golfer and two-time defending Safeway International champion.
I compare myself to the best players, the 2005 LPGA Rookie of the Year said before the event that starts Thursday at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. And thats Annika right now. I look ahead of me, not behind me. And I think Annika has set standards that are very high.
You know that when she is in a tournament, she is going to be in contention. And, you know, I want to be where shes at.
Sorenstam has gone places no other woman has been. Last year, she won her eighth Rolex Player of the Year award, passing Kathy Whitworth for the most in LPGA history.
Five years ago, at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, Sorenstam became the only player in LPGA history to shoot a 59. Shes the only player to sweep the Player of the Year, scoring and money titles five times. Her scoring averages during the past five years have been the five best in LPGA history.
But Sorenstam, 35, is facing a bold challenge from a wave of talented youngsters. Many of them are in the Safeway International field, including the 19-year-old Creamer, 17-year-old Morgan Pressel and 20-year-old rookie Seon Hwa Lee, who finished a stroke behind Sorenstam last week at the MasterCard Classic in Huixquilucan, Mexico.
I just dont think there has been anybody out there thats been able to challenge Annika in the last couple of years, Creamer said. And now there are people.
Sorenstam said being pushed by tour newcomers is a great challenge, theres no doubt about it. I think the last few years weve had a lot of young and up-and-coming players that are very good. Its nice to see that they bring some attention to the tour.
This is a solid group, Sorenstam said. Theres a lot more younger players coming up, and theyve got strong games and theyre making a lot of noise.
Indeed, Creamer and Pressel were brought to the interview tent Tuesday to accommodate growing media demands.
Creamer won two events last year. The first victory, in the Sybase Classic, came four days before her high school graduation. At 18 years, 9 months and 17 days, she became the youngest winner of a multi-round event in history.
Two months later, Creamer won the Evian Masters and, at 18 years, 11 months and 18 days, she became the youngest player to reach $1 million in career earnings.
Creamers big year raised expectations'and pressure'as the season begins. Check out the cover of this years LPGA media guide, which features two golfers.
One is Creamer, with two career victories. The other is Sorenstam, who last week won her 67th tournament.
Could it be the start of a rivalry?
There really hadnt been anybody in a while to challenge her, Creamer said. I hope that Im that person that does that. I mean, thats what I feel like I have to do. And thats where I need to be. Shes in the spot that I want to be in.
Its a lofty perch. Fresh off a victory in her first LPGA tournament of the season, Sorenstam seems poised for a repeat of 2005, when she won 11 of the 21 events she entered and earned a tour-leading $2.59 million.
But thats not what Sorenstam is thinking as she goes after her third consecutive Safeway International victory. A week ago, she opened her season with a 1-stroke victory in the MasterCard Classic.
When you look back at 2005 and say, You know what? You won 10 times on the LPGA and once in Europe. You have to win 11 times to tie. That seems like too much pressure, Sorenstam said Wednesday. So I just want to start this year with a fresh line and just play what I can and see what happens.
Sorenstam isnt waiting for the kids to catch her. She said she tweaked her game during the winter, straightening her putting stroke and widening her stance.
Sorenstam also has moved on in her personal life after divorcing David Esch, her husband of eight years.
I am happier on the course, Sorenstam said. I am happier off the course. Obviously, thats a good balance to have.