Annika No Longer a Certainty

By Mercer BaggsMarch 13, 2007, 4:00 pm
There are a few certainties in golf.
 
A few examples: 1) No one at NBC will ever ' ever ' disagree with Johnny Miller on air (play a drinking game in which you take a shot every time Gary Koch or Roger Maltbie says, Yeah, Johnny, youre right. Youll be schnockered within 20 minutes); 2) If I say that you will win, you will most likely lose; 3) Annika Sorenstam will roll right off the couch and into the winners circle.
 
Well at least 1 and 2 still hold true.
 
Annika Sorenstam and Meaghan Francella
Annika Sorenstam is now 15-6 in her LPGA career in playoffs. (Getty Images)
Bidding to win her first start for the fourth consecutive season, Sorenstam fell in a playoff at the MasterCard Classic to Meaghan Francella.
 
To say the result was surprising is to say that the 2008 Presidential race will get personal ' both are vast understatements.
 
Sorenstam has 69 LPGA Tour wins; Francella has six LPGA Tour starts. Sorenstam has 10 majors; Francella had one top-35 finish before this week. Sorenstam is arguably the greatest female player ever; Francella is honestly, up until this week I had no idea who Meaghan Francella was.
 
I thought this was March Madness time? Sixteen seeds dont beat No. 1s.
 
Ironically, it was a year ago on this very same day (March 12) that I wrote a column about Sorenstam winning in her season debut in Mexico (coincidentally, Francella won her first professional event on the Duramed FUTURES Tour on March 12, 2006).
 
I was gushing over Annika's performance. I believed her to be unbeatable. Even though common sense told me there was no way that she could win every single time she teed it up, I felt it possible.
 
Obviously, Im a little less enthusiastic a year later. Yet Im far more intrigued to see where the road will take her.
 
Even without much of an effort, Annika can win three times and even a major each season. She proved that last year.
 
After opening with her win South of the Border, she captured only two more titles (though, one was the U.S. Womens Open), falling victim to certainty No. 2.
 
I like to think, however, that the decline in production wasnt as much my doing as it was hers. Sorenstam has admitted that she lacked full desire last year. She didnt have the drive that she had in previous seasons.
 
She was focused on her personal life and her personal interests, like her new golf and fitness academy outside of Orlando.
 
Those things still seem to weigh heavy on Annikas mind. In her pre-tournament press conference this past week, Annika said, As long I enjoy the competition and as long as I feel motivated and wake up in the morning excited to go practice, I will continue to play. Im not really sure how long that will be. I do have other interests off the golf course that I've been pursuing more and more.
 
She added that she plans to play around 15 or 16 times this year. Shes never played fewer than 17 LPGA events since joining the tour in 1994, and competed in 20 tournaments each of the last two seasons.
 
Motivation, it would seem, is the key to Annikas ultimate success, the difference between a ho-hum ' by her standards anyway ' 3-win, 1-major season and one in which she wins about half of her starts, multiple majors, and a bevy of awards.
 
And motivation, it would seem, is still a bit of a question mark.
 
Right now, Annika herself is a bit of a question mark.
 
This seems like a different Annika than the one weve come to know. There isnt nearly as much talk about her accomplishing a seasonal Grand Slam. There is more talk surrounding other players. And even Annika is talking like an underdog.
 
When asked if she considered herself the favorite after a first-round 69 left her two off the lead, Sorenstam deferred to another.
 
I'm not really sure I'm the favorite, said Sorenstam, the only winner the tournament had ever known until Monday. I would think Lorena would be.
 
Lorena, of course, is Lorena Ochoa, the reigning Player of the Year and sporting icon in her native Mexico.
 
It almost seems unnatural that Annika would consider someone other than herself the player to beat, particularly when that player was two shots higher than she after the first round. Perhaps she was paying respect to Ochoa based on her accomplishments of a year ago. Perhaps she was just taking a little pressure off herself for once. Or, perhaps shes really a Jedi and she was playing mind tricks.
 
I figured it was the latter; so much so that I began writing my column assuming Annika would win. Oops certainty No. 2 rears up its ugly little head once again.
 
Having begun the weather-delayed final round three in arrears, Sorenstam shot 6-under 66 Monday to catch Francella and force a playoff. They then tied each of the first three holes of sudden death before Francella won on the fourth extra hole with a 4-foot birdie.
 
'Words can't describe how I feel right now,' Francella said afterwards.
 
'Today I got beaten, but I gave it a good run,' said Sorenstam. 'I felt really good about my game, so that's what I'm going to take out of this tournament.'
 
The most intriguing thing in all of this is how will Sorenstam respond? Will this just make her angry, more focused? Is this a good kick in the butt for her?
 
Or is it a kick in the teeth? Will this just deflate her? Will it sour her on competing even more?
 
A year ago, I wouldnt have thought the latter line of questioning fathomable. Now Im not so sure.
 
But, perhaps thats a good thing for Annika. It doesnt help her cause to have me thinking that she is going to win. That is a certainty.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
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