The last time she came to Pumpkin Ridge for the U.S. Women's Open, Sorenstam was on top of her game, just as she is now. She had won the LPGA Tour money title the previous two years, and had a chance to make history.
Only on this occasion, she caved.
Going for an unprecedented third straight U.S. Women's Open, Sorenstam took a triple bogey in an opening-round 77, followed that with a 73 and missed the cut for the first time in 62 tournaments and three years.
``My experience here in '97 was a short one, not the one that I would like to remember,'' Sorenstam said Tuesday after a practice round on the Witch Hollow course.
Even so, her first thought as she drove through the gates for the first time in six years was that triple-bogey 7 on the ninth hole -- a drive into the bunker, a 9-wood into the knee-high weeds, a wedge that moved 3 inches.
``That hole has been haunting me for a while,'' she said.
Is it payback time at Pumpkin Ridge? Sorenstam relished the idea.
``I think so,'' she said with a confident smile.
No one is in better position.
Sorenstam is coming off the most successful spring of her career. Along with three victories, including the LPGA Championship for her fifth major, she proved her mettle against the best with rounds of 71-74 at the Colonial, where she became the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour.
Asked which players a course like Witch Hollow might favor, Dottie Pepper started at the top by saying, ``You can never take Annika out of the mix.''
Still, the Women's Open has not treated her the way it once did.
Her first LPGA Tour victory was the biggest in women's golf, a one-shot victory over Meg Mallon at Broadmoor in the '95 Women's Open. Then came a six-shot win at Pine Needles the following year.
``It just kind of came easy for two years,'' she said. ``I said, 'Oh, I can do this.' And then when it was time for a major, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself.''
Karrie Webb knows the feeling.
She also had a chance at three straight Women's Opens and, like Sorenstam, had mastery of her game when she arrived at Prairie Dunes in Kansas last year.
And just like Sorenstam, she missed the cut.
``I think I tried to put it to the back of my mind, but obviously I knew what it meant if I won last year,'' Webb said. ``I felt like I was on top of the world. It was just a formality to play the four rounds the way I played the practice rounds.''
She shot 79-73 and missed the cut for the first time in 56 tournaments.
Webb bounced back to win the British Open the following month to complete the LPGA Super Slam -- all five majors -- and win a Grand Slam event for the fourth straight year, the longest streak since Mickey Wright in the 1960s.
Sorenstam's recovery took a little longer.
When she left Witch Hollow, she never came seriously close to winning another major until capturing the Nabisco Championship four years later.
It was hardly a black hole.
After watching Se Ri Pak dominate the majors as a rookie in 1998, and Webb take over women's golf the following two years, Sorenstam chiseled her body and her game into the fighting form that has taken her where few other women have been.
She won eight tournaments in 2001, setting some two dozen records. For an encore, she turned in the best season in nearly 40 years by winning 11 times on the LPGA Tour.
The missing link -- another Women's Open.
Sorenstam was poised to win last year at Prairie Dunes, leading by two going into the final round until Juli Inkster chased her down with a 4-under 66.
Now, Sorenstam is better than ever.
She has added some 20 yards off the tee, and her nerves are like steel. She attributes that to two days against the men at Colonial, where Sorenstam faced perhaps more pressure than any other golfer, no matter what gender.
``The Colonial just made me a more mature player,'' she said.
It also has given Sorenstam more motivation to keep going. She hinted late last year that retirement might come sooner than some people might think. Even though she is only 32, Sorenstam wants to do other things when the time is right -- be a chef, maybe start a family.
All that matters this week is winning another Women's Open.
``This is a tournament that people know all around the world,'' she said. ``As a little kid, I would practice putting at home and I would always say, `This is to win the U.S. Open.' I never said (that) for another tournament. It was the U.S. Open that came to mind.''
She doesn't have the pressure of trying to win three in a row, just the pressure of living up to the expectations as the No. 1 player in women's golf, the best of her generation.
Lately, Sorenstam has proven up to the task. She'll find out starting Thursday whether the Witch Hollow course at Pumpkin Ridge again has the final say.
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