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Big Test for Beatable Sorenstam

USGAAnnika Sorenstam has gone from the slam to the slump.
She was on the fast track to the Grand Slam last year after winning the first two majors by a combined 11 shots, leading over the final 54 holes in each of them. Her victims were a 45-year-old easing into retirement (Rosie Jones) and a 15-year-old who still had two years left in high school (Michelle Wie).
The Swede looked unstoppable until running into her toughest opponent: The U.S. Women's Open.
Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam has only one victory this season -- her first start of the year.
One year later, the showcase event in women's golf stands in the way of a different goal for Sorenstam, who is trying to diffuse talk about her being in a slump.
''I don't use that word myself,'' Sorenstam said. ''I'm one of the few players that won this year, so in a way, I take it as a compliment because I have set the standard very high. It might not sound like the greatest season so far, but I have not played half of the tournaments yet. Let's just see how the season turns out.''
The U.S. Women's Open begins Thursday at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, a founding member of the USGA that held the first two majors in this country -- the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, one day apart in 1895 -- and did not host another big event until Tiger Woods won his second U.S. Amateur in 1995.
It is the main event on the LPGA Tour, offering $560,000 to the winner.
''There's just something different about the U.S. Open that makes it that much more important to just about anyone that plays it,'' two-time Open champion Karrie Webb said. ''It's going to be a really tough challenge. I'm preparing now for that to be a really long, tiring week, and telling myself now to be patient.''
Sorenstam has no choice but to preach patience, hopeful her game will turn around.
She won her 2006 debut on the LPGA Tour at a 54-hole event in Mexico, but that remains her only victory this year. She is No. 6 on the money list, but everyone is used to seeing her name at the top. And while Sorenstam has finished in the top 10 at both majors, she was never seriously a factor in either.
She is not hitting as many fairways. She is not making enough putts. She can't seem to put three or four good rounds together.
''It just goes a little bit up and down at the moment,'' she said. ''I just keep on going because I know what I'm capable of. I've hit a little plateau at the moment, and I'm trying to find a way to get to the next step and keep on cruising, the way I did a few years ago.''
She comes into the U.S. Women's Open having taken two weeks off to clear her mind. She is still atop the women's world ranking by a large margin, and no one doubts her skill.
But history is not on her side at this championship -- not any more.
Ten years ago, Sorenstam was so dominant in the U.S. Women's Open that she missed only five fairways all week at Pine Needles and won by six shots, setting a tournament record at 272. It was her second straight Open title, and many more were sure to follow.
Now, that's about the only major she can't seem to win.
Going for the third leg of the Grand Slam last year at Cherry Hills, she let nerves get the best of her in the first round, then fell apart on the weekend with a four-putt double bogey on Saturday and a 77 on Sunday.
She needed a birdie on the par-5 18th hole to win at Pumpkin Ridge in 2003 and had only a 4-wood left to the green. But she hit it behind a portable toilet, hit wedge into the bunker and made bogey to finish one shot out of the playoff. The year before, at Prairie Dunes, she led by two shots going into the final round and lost to Juli Inkster.
''It's really the No. 1 major ... and the U.S. Open always means a lot to me,'' Sorenstam said. ''I haven't won it in a while, and I've had the chance a few times. I've been very, very close, so I'm looking forward to it. Like I said, I'm just wanting my game to turn around, and it will be a lot more fun.''
The U.S. Women's Open is not meant to be fun. It was a matter of survival last year at Cherry Hills, a test so demanding that only one player broke par in the final round and seven players didn't break 80. Birdie Kim won by holing a 30-yard bunker shot on the last hole to finish at 3-over 287.
Newport figures to be just as stern. It is a links-style course off Newport Harbor and can stretch to 6,616 yards. It features deep grass off the fairway and wind that makes the course play even longer.
Wie had to rely on another sponsor's exemption after a final-round collapse last year sent her into a tie for 23rd. Playing her first Women's Open as a pro, she appears to be closing in on her first victory since 2003. She had birdie putts on the final hole of this year's first two majors that would have put her in a playoff, missing from 10 feet at the Kraft Nabisco and from 50 feet at the LPGA Championship.
In between, she made the cut against the men on the Asian Tour and tried to qualify for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. But her putting needs vast improvement, along with her wedge play.
''I was counting too much on the last moment, and I know what I have to work on for the next two weeks,'' Wie said after the LPGA Championship. ''I'm really excited for the U.S. Open.''
Sorenstam has gone only three months without a victory, so a win at the U.S. Women's Open hardly would feel like a renaissance in her career. Considering how long it's been since she won the Open, though, it might feel like one.
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - U.S. Women's Open