Annika Wins Silver but Game is Golden

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2004 U.S. WomenSOUTH HADLEY, Mass. -- The silver medal Annika Sorenstam received for her runner-up finish was slung around the back of her neck so no one could see it. It was not an intentional gesture but certainly symbolic.

She is sick of second place in the U.S. Women's Open.

The major championship she won back to back at the start of her career now seems to be the most difficult, and it doesn't help that the Women's Open happens to be the biggest event in her sport.

The last three years only make it more frustrating.

She had a two-shot lead at Prairie Dunes, shot even-par 70 in the final round and lost to a 66 by Juli Inkster.

She was poised to win at Pumpkin Ridge, standing in the fairway on the par-5 18th and needing a birdie to win until hitting her 4-wood next to a portable toilet in the trees and making bogey.
 
Sunday at Orchards Golf Club might have been the toughest of all.

Sorenstam putted for birdie on every hole in the final round, and she made pressure-packed birdie putts on her final two holes for a 4-under 67. She was so fired up by making the last birdie putt -- surely, that would be enough -- that she lunged toward the cup like a fencer and pumped her fist.

Alas, Meg Mallon polished off the lowest closing round by a winner in the 59-year history of the Women's Open with a bogey-free 65 to finish two shots ahead.
Thanks, Annika. See you next year.

'I really thought it was my turn,' Sorenstam said. 'Sometimes I win tournaments when I don't play as well. This week I really played well. And that's sometimes hard to swallow.'

For someone who has won 52 times, including seven majors, during her decade on the LPGA Tour, Sorenstam should know by now that some things in golf are beyond her control.

Sorenstam had no one to blame but herself last year at Pumpkin Ridge. She was 236 yards from the green for her second shot into the par-5 18th. Even a par would have been good enough for a playoff. Instead, she hit into the trees, dropped away from the portable toilet, clipped a branch and dropped into a bunker to make bogey 6.

She was angry in Oregon. She looked bewildered at the Orchards.

There should have been no disgrace losing to Mallon, who didn't make a bogey over the final 25 holes, took only 24 putts in the final round and had all the stars aligned. That's golf.

But Sorenstam expects so much more.

'I gave every effort I had,' she said. 'I grinded to the end. I was patient. I didn't throw away a shot. I never got impatient. I never got stupid. I was smart out there.'

Then she paused to let her emotions cool.

'Like I said, I got outplayed,' she continued. 'It's not a fun feeling by any means.'

By now, the 33-year-old Swede is relaxing on a boat somewhere on Lake Tahoe, and perhaps she can reflect on this Women's Open the way she should -- as another success.

Even the greatest players don't win every major.

Only the greatest players keep putting themselves in position time and again.
Along with winning a record 18 professional majors, the measure of Jack Nicklaus is his 19 runner-up finishes.

Sorenstam is at such an extraordinary level that everyone expects her to be near the top of the lead at a major championship late Sunday afternoon, and she rarely disappoints. She has finished no worse than fifth in 12 of her last 16 majors, winning five of them.

And that's what separates her from everyone else in golf -- including Tiger Woods.

Woods now has gone eight majors without winning, which in itself is no cause for alarm. Nicklaus had an 0-for-12 drought at about the same time in his life.

Even so, Nicklaus gave himself plenty of chances. During his three-year drought from the 1967 British Open through the 1970 U.S. Open, Nicklaus was a runner-up three times and finished in the top six three other times.

Woods finished one shot behind Rich Beem in the '02 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, and he was among several players who had a chance at Royal St. George's last year until Ben Curtis won the British Open.

'You've just got to keep plugging along and keep giving yourself opportunities,' Woods said last week. 'There's been no player in the history of our game that has given himself more opportunities than Jack to win major championships. I think that's what separated him from everyone else.'

That's what Sorenstam should take away from this Women's Open.

'Hopefully, Annika is feeling that she got beat today, that she didn't lose. That's what happened,' Mallon said. 'To have her be the one to finish second is even that more gratifying, the fact that you beat the best player in the world today. Because it doesn't happen very often.'

It happens more than Sorenstam would prefer, which explains her angst as she left western Massachusetts.

She'll get over this one, but it won't be easy. Sorenstam is driven to win like no other woman, and it shows by the way she is constantly contending for the biggest titles.

Next up is the Women's British Open later this month at Sunningdale, and Sorenstam will be the betting favorite to defend her title. She has seven majors. She wants to get to 10.

At this rate, it's just around the corner.
 
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