Sorenstam Hopes for Another Special Year

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PHOENIX -- Annika Sorenstam is playing the Colonial this year because she wants to see if she can compete against men. Then again, maybe she was just getting bored beating her fellow LPGA Tour players.
 
Sorenstam returns Thursday to the tour she has dominated the last two years, beginning what could be a historic season on a course where she already made history by shooting a 59.
 
Coming off a year in which she won nearly half the time she teed it up, Sorenstam has not only 11 titles to defend but also the pressure of becoming the first woman to play on the PGA Tour in 58 years.
 
If Sorenstam is a bit unnerved about the attention her quest is getting, she doesn't show it. If anything, she seems to crave a challenge she believes will only make her better.
 
'This, first of all, is a test for me. I want to see how good my game is against the best guys in the world and on a course I have chosen I think will fit my game,' Sorenstam said. 'It's going to give me feedback what I need to work on and how do I take my game to the next level.'
 
That kind of talk might be upsetting to other LPGA players here this week for the Safeway Ping tournament, the second tournament of the year.
 
Australian Wendy Doolan won in Sorenstam's absence last week in Tucson. But if Sorenstam manages to get any better, Doolan and the other players will find second-place money beginning to look awfully good.
 
'Annika is simply exceptional,' Laura Davies said.
 
Sorenstam is starting a week later than most players, using the time to get in a weekend round with Tiger Woods and getting to know the Colonial course she will play in late May.
 
With the increased media coverage, though, it almost seems like opening day for both Sorenstam and the LPGA.
 
'There's no question her decision to play at Colonial will bring a greater awareness and more fans to the LPGA,' commissioner Ty Votaw said. 'We win on this, no question about it. I've conveyed that to the players.'
 
Indeed, Votaw pulled out a pile of press clippings at Monday's annual player meeting to convey to them just how much Sorenstam's plan to play Colonial is helping get the LPGA some much needed publicity.
 
At the meeting, Votaw told players they should back Sorenstam's quest.
 
'I just encouraged the players to do everything they can to be positive and supportive of her decision,' he said. 'There is a much greater upside for the LPGA than any downside.'
 
Sorenstam's dominance of the tour last year seemed to help the LPGA, which is in the second year of a five-year building plan that began with the trimming of some tournaments.
 
Attendance was up 12 percent last year and television viewers increased 20 percent, numbers that players hope will result in increases over the average purse of $1.27 million.
 
'Any publicity is good publicity and she's definitely going to get that,' Doolan said.
 
Sorenstam doesn't want her decision to play in Colonial to overshadow the eight LPGA tour events before the men's tournament. She will play in six of them, and said she has gotten nothing but support from her fellow players.
 
Among those supporters is former tour star Nancy Lopez, who called Sorenstam to wish her luck and said she wished she had gotten a chance to play in a PGA Tour event.
 
'That means a lot to me when players, especially of her caliber, call me and wish me good luck,' Sorenstam said. 'I feel like the tour is totally behind me and I think they all know that I'm going to try to do the best I can.'
 
Sorenstam couldn't do much better that she did on the LPGA tour last year, where she won 11 times in 23 starts and shattered the LPGA season scoring average with a 68.70.
 
One of her few disappoints actually came here at the Moon Valley Country Club, where she blew a five-shot final-round lead and lost to Rachel Teske in a playoff
 
Of course, this is also the same place where she became the first woman to shoot a 59 in competition on her way to a win two years ago, so she has some fond memories to look back on.
 
'It's a special place for me in many ways,' Sorenstam said. 'So it feels like a good place to start.'