Colonial the Ultimate Challenge for Sorenstam

By Associated PressMay 18, 2003, 4:00 pm
FORT WORTH, Texas -- It started with a harmless question about taking her game to the highest level, against the men on the PGA Tour.
 
What about you, Annika?
 
Truth is, the idea had been festering all along.
 
Annika Sorenstam won 13 times in 25 tournaments around the world last year, a success rate that dwarfed even the best of Tiger Woods.
 
She shot 59 two years ago in Phoenix -- no other woman had done that. She set 30 records one year, then matched or broke 20 of them for an encore. Through it all, she worked harder, got stronger, and soon ran out of mountains to climb.
 
'My husband has always talked about, 'I wonder how you would play against the men on their golf course?'' Sorenstam said. 'I watched PGA tournaments on TV and I've thought about it for a quick second. Then the conversation would die, and I wouldn't even talk about it. But I had it in the back of my mind.'
 
The idea called out to her when Connecticut club pro Suzy Whaley qualified for the Greater Hartford Open. Then, Michelle Wie tried to qualify for the Sony Open and shot a respectable 73, just six strokes off the mark.
 
What about you, Annika?
 
'I haven't thought about qualifying,' she replied on that landmark afternoon in January. 'But if I got an invite, I would say yes in a heartbeat.'
 
She didn't have to beg.
 
Within two weeks, Sorenstam settled on the Colonial as her Mount Everest.
 
The 32-year-old Swede will become the first player in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour when she tees it up Thursday against 123 men at Colonial, a tradition-rich tournament soon to be known as more than the place Ben Hogan won five times.
 
The Colonial comes one month after the Masters, where Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations mounted a fierce campaign to penetrate the all-male Augusta National Golf Club.
 
That was about social change.
 
This is about golf.
 
'I'm not putting the guys on test here, or men against women. I'm far from that,' Sorenstam said. 'This is a test for me personally. I don't want to put the guys on any defensive. I just want to play against the best and see what happens.'
 
Why bother?
 
Why put her considerable skills to such a test when success will be measured by the number on her scorecard, especially if she plays only two rounds?
 
'If Tiger had a place that had better players, he would challenge himself,' Juli Inkster said. 'What I respect about Annika is that she's never satisfied. You've got to give her credit for even going out there and trying.'
 
The challenge will be unlike anything Sorenstam has ever faced.
 
Colonial is longer than anything she has faced, a par 70 at 7,080 yards.
 
The rough will be thicker. The greens quicker. The pins tucked in perilous positions.
 
And that might be the easiest part of the equation.
 
Media credentials outnumber players by a 4-1 margin. Television plans to show every hole she plays. Sorenstam wants only to test her game, but she is naive to think the reputation of the LPGA Tour won't be standing with her over every putt.
 
'I think it's great she's playing, but ... it will only be great for women's golf if she plays well,' Woods said. 'I think if she goes out there and posts two high scores, I think it's going to be more detrimental than it's going to be good.'
 
Woods played a practice round with her at Isleworth, his home course in Florida, and was said to have finished 10 strokes ahead. John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves reportedly beat her, too.
 
The reception from PGA Tour players -- none was even born when Babe Zaharias qualified for the Los Angeles Open in 1945 -- has been lukewarm at best.
 
While fearful of the worst, Woods thinks she should play four or five events to get a feel for the PGA Tour. He will not be at the Colonial.
 
Phil Mickelson thinks she can finish in the top 20, adding quickly that he hopes he finishes '19th or better.' David Duval says Sorenstam is good enough to make the cut at Colonial, although he concedes the odds are high. 'Then again, we're talking about a lady that has been the most dominant player in her game for several years,' Duval said. 'She was far more dominant on the LPGA than Tiger was on our tour.'
 
The climate turned hostile when Vijay Singh, in an interview with The Associated Press, said, 'I hope she misses the cut. Why? Because she doesn't belong out here.'
 
Singh later said he was sorry if his comment came across as a personal attack.
 
Scott Hoch, who once played a mixed-team event with Sorenstam, wants her to play well so that 'what comes out of this is that she realizes she can't compete against the men.'
 
'What's the purpose?' Hoch said. 'If she wants to challenge herself, she can play against the boys at Isleworth. She already did that, and found out she's going to get drummed.'
 
Sorenstam is averaging about 275 yards off the tee this year, a vast improvement but still toward the bottom percentile of driving distance on the PGA Tour.
 
She chose Colonial because length isn't everything off the tee -- most men hit irons and fairway metals to keep from running through the doglegs.
 
Power still figures to be a problem, not so much off the tee, but hitting the ball with enough spin to get it close to the hole, and chipping out of the rough. PGA Tour players generate far more clubhead speed.
 
'I think it's like a featherweight going against a heavyweight,' David Toms said.
 
Add to that more pressure than perhaps any other golfer has felt. Even when Woods was going for his history-making fourth consecutive major at the 2001 Masters, he was playing for himself.
 
Sorenstam represents the best of the LPGA Tour.
 
'I hope to hell she plays well,' said Louise Suggs, an LPGA founder and member of the Hall of Fame. 'I hope they won't hold it against her if she plays poorly.'
 
Dow Finsterwald, a former PGA champion whose son is the head pro at Colonial, said two things will come out of Sorenstam playing at Colonial.
 
'Either she's going to embarrass herself or she'll embarrass a lot of guys,' he said.
 
Regardless of the outcome, Sorenstam already has brought enormous publicity to the LPGA Tour. The needle barely moved when she won 13 times last year, the best season by anyone in golf in nearly 40 years.
 
Her decision to play Colonial has resulted in more than 1,500 stories about her. Sorenstam has appeared on everything from 'Today' to the 'Tonight Show.'
 
LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw brought a folder the size of a phone book to a players' meeting in Phoenix to show them how much media attention Sorenstam has generated -- and this was before the first LPGA tournament has been played.
 
He isn't concerned about any backlash if Sorenstam struggles.
 
'Anybody waiting for her to do poorly just to say, 'I told you so,' isn't a fan of the LPGA Tour, anyway,' Votaw said. 'We're not going to lose them.
 
'If this is what captures the public's imagination, if this is what brings eyeballs to the LPGA, anyone who questions the good of this is being shortsighted.'
 
This isn't the first time Sorenstam has been under the spotlight.
 
She played with Woods against Duval and Karrie Webb in the 'Battle at Bighorn' two years ago. It was televised in prime time, with some 5,000 people scrambling along the fairways for a good view.
 
It was a fiasco at the end, in part because of high winds and a brutally tough golf course. The lasting image was Sorenstam knocking a putt off the green and into the fairway, and neither woman able to hit the final fairway in regulation and the playoff.
 
Sorenstam didn't view that as failure. She knocked in the pivotal putt. And as she left the California desert that day, her final words were, 'Hopefully, I'll get another chance.'
 
She never imagined it would lead her to the PGA Tour, at Colonial, without a partner, with the world watching.
 
'I'm not afraid of anything,' she said. 'I know I can play.'
 
Related Links:
  • ''Everything Annika'' Feature Page
  • Annika and the Colonial Timeline
  • Full Coverage of the Bank of America Colonial
     
    Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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