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Golf

All eyes will be on LPGA's Sorenstam

As an encore to a phenomenal 2002, the best female player in the world will compete in a PGA event in May.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 13, 2003


The story lines on the PGA Tour have been developing since the first week of January, with Ernie Els, Mike Weir and Tiger Woods winning two tournaments apiece, and myriad other happenings concerning Phil Mickelson.

The LPGA Tour? Its members have yet to hit a meaningful shot in 2003, and yet 10 weeks into a new year, they may have received more publicity than ever dreamed.

They can thank Annika Sorenstam for that, and it only indirectly has to do with her winning 11 times last year.

Sorenstam has been one of the biggest stories in golf since late January when she said she'd play in a PGA Tour event, if asked, "in a heartbeat." After a few weeks of fielding offers, Sorenstam accepted an invitation to play in the Colonial in May.

There have been interview requests by 60 Minutes, The Tonight Show and the Today show.

The tournament still is two months away, but it promises to be a topic of conversation wherever she goes.

The LPGA Tour's official season finally begins today in Tucson, Ariz., at the Welch's/Fry's Championship, where Sorenstam will undoubtedly be a big story -- even though she's not playing.

Sorenstam has elected to begin her season next week in Phoenix, one of eight LPGA events before the big week in Fort Worth, Texas. Sorenstam is scheduled to play in six of those tournaments.

And she's not planning on using them as a warmup. Indeed, Sorenstam has big goals for this year on the LPGA Tour, even if winning 13 tournaments worldwide is a bit much to ask. Still, what do you do for an encore?

After all, last year she had the best season in women's golf in nearly 40 years, winning 13 times in 25 starts around the world. She finished in the top five in 19 of her 23 LPGA tournaments, missing just two cuts.

"I've thought about that myself," she said. "When I tee off in my first tournament, there's a lot of pressure. I won 13 times last year, does that mean I have to win 14 to make it a better season? If I have that mind-set, I think it'll be very tough to play this year. I'm focused on improving my game. I want to be a better golfer.

"But I want to do better in the majors. The majors are something I want to win. I've only won four. I want to win more."

Sorenstam, who is from Sweden but has a home at Lake Nona in Orlando, spent a good part of her offseason in the gym. She already had bulked up considerably last year, but her goal was to get even stronger.

Another purpose was to become more creative around the greens, improve her chipping and shape shots better. "My natural shot is a straight shot," she said. "I want to be able to work the ball a little more. If it's a dogleg, I want to be able to use the dogleg."

And you wonder why Sorenstam has become so dominant? Who wouldn't love to have a straight shot be their main shot?

She dissects her game, and looks for the tiniest things to improve. Last year, Sorenstam felt her bunker play could have been better. This year, she wants to improve her putting, though she leads the LPGA by hitting a staggering 80 percent of the greens in regulation.

Sorenstam, 32, has won 42 LPGA Tour titles to qualify for the Hall of Fame, but her troubles in majors might give an inkling to the obstacles she'll face when competing against the men.

"My problem is I want it so badly I get in my own way," Sorenstam said. "My caddie always tells me that you try too hard. I have to just go out and play. That's what I do the other weeks. It just seems when a major comes, the more I try to play. I just have to control my brain a little bit. I know I have the shots. And I've won majors before. It's just controlling it, I believe.

"I think I put more pressure on myself early on. Like Thursday. It's like I try to win it on Thursday, which we all know it comes down to the back nine on Sunday. You'd think I'd know that by now. I just get so anxious sometimes. I think my chances are better if I'm in the middle of the pack going into Saturday or Sunday."

It's going to be an interesting time for Sorenstam and the LPGA Tour. She will be the subject of conversation at each event and will no doubt attract more media attention. Could that, perhaps, rub off on other LPGA players, who may be discovered? The PGA Tour has used Woods' popularity to promote others. Perhaps Sorenstam's will lead to more recognition for female players.

"Just being in the fray, being noble in her pursuit of testing herself, people will admire her for that and will follow the LPGA like never before," LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw said.

Not to be forgotten, the LPGA plays its first major in two weeks, the Nabisco Championship, where Sorenstam is defending champion.

And through all of this, Sorenstam will have to get ready for a daunting test, playing a 7,000-yard PGA Tour course at Colonial that many believe will be difficult for her to handle.

"Annika is an unbelievable player, but she's unbelievable out there (on the LPGA Tour)," said the PGA Tour's Fred Funk. "I'd hate for her to come out and maybe have a bad week. Unless she's playing exceptionally well, it's going to be hard."

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