Sorenstam Soars into Seasons First Major

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - The 2001 LPGA Player of the Year, Annika Sorenstam, may have set too high a standard for herself. But shes sure trying to meet it.
 
Last year Annika had one of the most successful campaigns in her tours history by winning eight times, including the Nabisco, this weeks major championship. That kind of record is not easy to live up to. Just ask Tiger.
 
So what has Ms. Sorenstam done lately? Well, Annika started this year by winning the prestigious Australian Masters on the European Tour, beating world No. 2 Karrie Webb in a playoff. Then, one week later, at this tours season-opener, Annika won again. Two weeks, two continents, two tours, two wins. Nice start.
 
Thanks to her incredible run in March last year, this weeks Kraft Nabisco Championship will mark the fourth week in a row the 31-year-old Sorenstam will be defending a crown. She won the aforementioned Takefuji Classic in Hawaii, then made it to a playoff before losing to Rachel Teske in Phoenix. Last week in Tucson, where Annika played for the University of Arizona, she started poorly, 2-over-par in the first 15 holes. Sorenstam proceeded to play the next 21 holes 8-under to get back into contention.
 
For, seemingly, the umpteenth time in the last couple of years, she had a chance to make history. Annika had won Tucson each of the previous two years, and if she could make it three in row, Sorenstam would become the first LPGA player to win two different tournaments three consecutive years. She first accomplished the feat in St. Louis at the Michelob Light, winning from 1997 through 99.
 
Annika failed to meet her own incredibly high standards and finished seventh to Laura Diaz. That win by the 26-year-old American sets up another terrific story line for this week. Most of the visionaries who watch the LPGA closely have been touting young Ms. Diaz as the next American star. Last year, in the former Laura Philos third full year on tour, she glistened, but didnt quite shine, finishing second four times. Now that shes broken through into the winners circle, Diaz undoubtedly will find it easier to return. For historical examples, just think of Lori Kane and David Duval.
 
I take that as quite a compliment, Diaz said Wednesday. To be mentioned alongside two players with such talent is really something.
 
The 2000 Kraft Nabisco champion, Webb, comes into the years Dinah with her major already in the bag. The girl from Down Under won the Australian Open the week after she lost to Sorenstam in that Aussie Masters playoff. Karries first start in the States was Phoenix, where the jet-lagged star finished 42nd. This past week in Tucson, it was clear Karrie was getting back to normal as she posted 14-under-par to finish tied for fifth. My confidence grows with every round I play, she said.
 
Even though the current Kraft Nabisco Championship, the former Dinah Shore, is just the fourth event on the 2002 LPGA schedule, it appears many forces are conspiring to make this first major of the year an intriguing one.
 
Its a Solheim Cup year, so points earned this week will go a long way for Americans trying to make their much-coveted team. That makes the major even more important to the Yanks. While Diaz may be leading the new breed onto the team, veterans like 84 and 89 Dinah Shore champion Julie Inkster and three-time major champion Meg Mallon showed this past week that their games are far from fading. Jules led in Tucson until late Sunday, when Laura whizzed by; and Meg, who needs to win here to complete the career grand slam, fired a final round 64 as a nice little warm up for the Nabisco.
 
If 24-year-old Se Ri Pak wins this week, she would supplant Webb as the youngest player to complete that career grand slam. But Se Ris main concern could be an injured right wrist. She hurt it practicing chip shots out of the rough in Phoenix and withdrew from last weeks field to get healthy for the Kraft Nabisco. It doesnt hurt me when I swing or putt, Pak said, just when I have to chip. She laughed and added, So I just wont miss any greens.
 
As is usually the case here, some entertaining amateurs will fill out a field of elite professionals. The Wonglukiet twins are back for their third Dinah and someone else worth watching this week will be collegiate star Lorena Ochoa. The University of Arizona junior also got a sponsors exemption to play in Tucson and finished tied with Webb for fifth place.
 
Many knowledgeable and critical eyes will watch the TV ratings that come out of this years Kraft Nabisco Championship with great interest. For years, poor ratings were often blamed on direct competition from the PGA Tours Players Championship. But thanks to a quirk in 2002 schedules, thats not happening this year. If this Dinah Shore lives up to its seemingly enormous potential, those television ratings will go a long way in telling us how far the LPGA has come, or how far it has to go.