Sorenstam Leads a Year of Surprises

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In a year of surprises, from Ben Curtis and Hilary Lunke winning majors to Tiger Woods getting grand slammed, the biggest story in golf should have come as no surprise at all.

After all, the attention at the start of the season was on a woman who unwittingly sparked a fierce debate over gender blending.
 
And sure enough, that's what made headlines.

Only it wasn't Martha Burk at the Masters.

It was Annika Sorenstam at the Colonial, as the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour.

'You cannot have any conversation about 2003 without starting off with the contributions and accomplishments and awareness that have been generated as a result of Annika Sorenstam,' LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw said.

Jay Haas summed it up more succinctly.

'You'll remember that forever,' he said.

It might not have been the most spectacular season in golf, but it certainly was one of the most peculiar.

-- For the first time in 34 years, the majors were swept by guys who had never won a Grand Slam event. Curtis never even played in a major until winning the British Open.

-- Woods broke one of the oldest records on the PGA Tour by making the cut in his 114th consecutive tournament, even though it came at an event that had no cut.

-- A lefty won a major for the first time since 1963.

-- Players in their 40s won more often than players in their 20s.

Still, the biggest story was a player who missed the cut.

'It was a Cinderella story,' Sorenstam said.

No one had a more memorable season than the steely Swede. She won two majors to complete the LPGA career Grand Slam, and capped her year by getting inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

But it was one swing under stifling pressure (her opening tee shot), one ordinary score (71) in an extraordinary round at the Colonial, and two days on the PGA Tour that captivated everyone's imagination.

'I've climbed as high as I can, and it was worth every step,' Sorenstam said after respectable rounds of 71-74.

When the year began in Hawaii, there was an uneasiness on the PGA Tour about the battle between Burk and Augusta National over the all-male membership at the home of the Masters.

Despite pressure on corporate members, TV sponsors and top players, club chairman Hootie Johnson held his ground that Augusta National would invite a female member on its own timetable. And Burk's rally turned into a circus, with more media than protesters.

Mike Weir became the first Canadian man to win a major and the first lefty in 40 years (just not the one everyone expected).

Vijay Singh was mum on the Augusta controversy, but had plenty to say about Sorenstam.

'I hope she misses the cut,' he told The Associated Press just before the Colonial. 'Why? She doesn't belong out here.'

That brought only more attention to Sorenstam, and made her performance even more remarkable.

In one of the most anticipated shots in golf, with more than 10,000 fans straining for a view, Sorenstam pulled back her 4-wood and belted it down the middle.

She made birdie her fourth hole, but she couldn't make enough to stick around for the weekend.

'She played amazing,' Jesper Parnevik said. 'I guess we have the Shark, the Tiger, and now we have the Superwoman.'

Singh withdrew from the Colonial -- and the media. Through it all, the 40-year-old Fijian had his best season ever with four victories and $7.5 million to end Woods' four-year reign atop the money list.

It still wasn't enough to earn him PGA Tour player of the year.

That went to Woods for the fifth straight time, even though he failed to win the money title or a major for the first year since 1998.

Woods missed the first five weeks of the season recovering from knee surgery. He won two of his first three tournaments, including the Match Play Championship, to become the first player to capture all four World Golf Championships.

The real Grand Slam belonged to Weir, Jim Furyk, Curtis and Shaun Micheel.

Weir won the first Masters playoff in 13 years, and his two other victories made him the highest-ranked southpaw in golf.

Furyk has a peculiar swing, but there was nothing strange about his performance in the U.S. Open. Accuracy was his hallmark at Olympia Fields, where he won by three shots.

Curtis was No. 396 in the world ranking and a 500-1 longshot at Royal St. George's in England, the ultimate no-name on a leaderboard chock full of stars.

The 26-year-old rookie closed with a 69 to win the British Open over Singh, Woods, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love III, Sergio Garcia and Kenny Perry.

Equally surprising was Micheel, who had not won in 163 previous tournaments. No one will forget the shot that clinched the PGA Championship at Oak Hill -- a 7-iron that stopped 2 inches from the cup on the final hole.

There were a few surprises on the LPGA, none bigger than Lunke.

One of the shortest hitters on the longest course in U.S. Women's Open history, Lunke won in an 18-hole playoff. She had never finished better than 15th on the LPGA Tour.

Michelle Wie was among a record 14 teenagers who qualified for the Women's Open and by year's end was making herself at home on just about every tour.

The 13-year-old Hawaiian played against the men on the Canadian and Nationwide tours and in the final group at an LPGA major, and she accepted an invitation to next month's Sony Open on the PGA Tour.

In all, seven women competed against men this year.

Some of the most exciting golf came in team competitions.

Europe won the Solheim Cup in Sweden. The final score was 171/2-101/2, the largest margin ever, although the celebration was so chaotic once Europe earned the decisive points that the final four matches never finished. The Americans conceded three of them.

At the Presidents Cup, Woods and Ernie Els tried to settle a tie with some of the most pressure-packed par putts in golf. There was still no winner after three playoff holes, so captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player decided there should be no loser.

They called it a tie and shared the cup.

'I think some people will be upset with that decision,' Nicklaus said. 'But both Gary and I feel in our hearts ... that it was the right thing to do. And we stand by it.'

Given the bizarre season in golf, it was the perfect way to end the year.
 
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