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Sorenstam wants to tee it up against men

If circumstances were right, the LPGA's best player would play in a PGA Tour event.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

ORLANDO -- Annika Sorenstam won 18 LPGA Tour events over the past two seasons, qualified for the Hall of Fame and established herself as the best woman player in the world.

Now she wants to take on the men -- even if it's just for one tournament.

Sorenstam said Wednesday that if the circumstances were right, she would accept a sponsor's exemption to play in a PGA Tour event.

"If I would get an invite, I would say yes in a heartbeat," said Sorenstam at the Bay Hill Club, where she was making an appearance for her sponsor, Callaway Golf.

"I would love to play. I have nothing to lose. I think it would be a great challenge. But it's not something I want to do regularly. I have a hard enough time on the LPGA. But it would be a great learning experience."

Sorenstam, 32, won 11 times in 2002, the most victories since Mickey Wright in 1964. Sorenstam finished among the top five in 19 of her 23 LPGA starts, missing just two cuts. She also won two non-LPGA events, giving her 13 victories in 25 tournaments worldwide.

The PGA Tour has no rules preventing women from playing. Sorenstam could attempt to qualify on a Monday, but she said she would prefer an invitation or a sponsor's exemption, which are typically given to round out a field.

Sorenstam said she started thinking about the possibility last year in the midst of her record-setting season. But she said nothing about it Wednesday until asked about Suzy Whaley, a Connecticut teaching pro who is expected to become the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in the modern era in July at the Greater Hartford Open.

Whaley qualified for the tournament last fall when she won a PGA sectional event where she played from a shorter set of tees. She will be required to play the championship tees at the Hartford tournament, which caused her to take considerable time before deciding.

Sorenstam said Whaley should not be judged harshly if she fares poorly.

"I hope people are educated enough to understand that she's a teaching pro" and not an LPGA Tour player, Sorenstam said. "She doesn't compete regularly, so it's different. I think she's very brave to go out there and play. It's not going to be easy. There's going to be a lot of attention."

Sorenstam said if she got a chance to play with the men, she did not believe her performance would affect the perception people have about women golfers being inferior. In fact, she said, maybe she could change it for the better.

"That (perception is there) anyway, without us playing against them," Sorenstam said. "Personally, I think it would be more beneficial if I played well. If not, I don't think it would change anything."

Sorenstam's agent, Mark Steinberg of International Management Group, said there have been no discussions with any PGA Tour events to this point.

"I suspect there will be more than one tournament that's very interested," he said. "There are going to be some tournaments that will not even consider it. That would be my guess. But I expect there to be some interest."

Last month, Sorenstam teamed with Jack Nicklaus in an exhibition match against David Duval and Lorena Ochoa in Mexico. Two years ago, she paired with Tiger Woods in a match against Karrie Webb and Duval.

In order to go head-to-head with the men, however, would require a certain type of venue.

"You have to pick the right course, and I think I can do well," she said. "A narrow course. I don't think distance is that important if it's narrow. I'd like to see really thick rough that is punishing to hit into, make you chip it out. That would be the type of course where I could do well."

There are roadblocks, however. Sorenstam would not skip an LPGA event where she is the defending champion -- and there are 11 this year -- nor would she want this to jeopardize her chances of winning a major championship.

But the idea does intrigue her.

"I'm playing so well, I don't want to wait too long," she said. "It's not on my priority list, but if I have a chance, I'd love to do it."

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