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Sorenstam could learn from a Babe who preceded her

Published May 4, 2003

Annika Sorenstam will take on the fellows. She dominates the LPGA with career earnings of $11-million. Now the Swede wants to know if her disciplined, efficient skills can hold up against male mashers on the PGA Tour where the courses are bigger and tougher.

Sorenstam is 18 days from the men's first tee. A challenge as voluminous as Texas itself, playing the venerable Colonial tournament on Fort Worth grounds, Ben Hogan made it all but holy. Pressures will keep escalating.

At least, by now, Annika must know she had a prodigious golfing foremother. Still the best female athlete in Olympic history. A lean, competitive Texan who ran faster, jumped higher and unleashed more power than any female from any continent in ruling the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

She was a Babe.

Mildred Didrikson Zaharias excelled at basketball and once smacked five homers in softball, triggering comparisons to Babe Ruth. From then on they shared a nickname.

Hungry for new challenges, the 18-year-old got an idea from legendary sports writer Grantland Rice. As the Summer Games wound down 71 years ago, Rice suggested golf. At the time he was helping Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts build Augusta National Golf Club, a place where women would not be welcome as members.

Now there's a scoop.

Within three years Babe was shooting in the 70s. She won the Texas Amateur and was branded a pro by the U.S. Golf Association. Didrikson went on an exhibition tour with Gene Sarazen after his famed double-eagle 2 at Augusta's 15th hole won the 1935 Masters.

There would be no LPGA until 1950. Babe's game had no steady stage. In 1938, on a dare, she entered the Los Angeles Open to play alongside Snead, Nelson, Hagan, Sarazen and others.

Didrikson shot 81-84 and missed the 36-hole cut, but few male pros demeaned her talent. That week she was paired with George Zaharias, a professional wrestler. He asked her on a date. A year later they were married.

After playing dozens of exhibitions during World War II, often to promote the sale of bonds to help finance the global conflict, Babe decided to give the L.A. Open another go in 1945.

That time her scores of 76-81 made the cut, but she was eliminated with 79 in the third round. Babe had game, but by the time the LPGA was born, she was in her mid 30s.

The Zahariases wound up moving to Tampa. She was stricken with cancer and died in 1956 at age 42. I got to know George in the '70s. Any mention of his wife brought the massive old wrestler to gushings of tears.

So, that's it, Annika. Think about the Babe. Dig deep until you find some of her amazing strength. Making the cut will be far harder now. Give it the old Didrikson try. Nobody should ask more.

DARRYL JUNIOR: It can be tough when a notable athlete lays his name on a son. Ken Griffey Jr. did okay, but Jack Nicklaus Jr., Joe Louis Jr. and Vince Lombardi Jr. couldn't approach the sports achievements of their fathers. They tried. Too much was expected.

A different kind of burden is mushrooming for Darryl Strawberry Jr., who in a few months will be a basketball freshman at the University of Maryland.

Named for one of baseball's more gifted, more controversial, more troubled people, the 6-foot-4 guard was the class of this season's southern California high school players.

After the tease of occasional heroics with the Mets and Yankees, the elder Strawberry was unraveled by bad choices. Drugs took him down. There were other failings. Darryl Sr. wound up in jail. Few jocks have wasted more of their athletic gifts. At 40, he was broke and a mess of a human being.

D.J., as the youngster is called, benefitted from little fatherly counsel. When the kid was 8, papa was divorced by D.J.'s mom, Lisa Watkins, in 1993. The raspberries associated with the Strawberry name frequently haunt D.J.

He heard the derisive chant, "Daaaarryl! Daaaarryl!" that followed his father from ballpark to ballpark. Already, the grandstand crazies at Duke must be scheming to figure what has the best chance to unnerve D.J. when the Terps come to Cameron Indoor Stadium. Expect to see a lot of drug needles and handcuffs in Durham.

"I think I've talked to D.J. about everything - drugs, girls, alcohol," his mother told the Washington Post. "He knows his best chance is if he stays clean."

That and a tough hide.

He's fed up with talking about Darryl Sr. It's a load the 18-year-old carries, thanks to his name. "I don't want another chance," D.J. told the Post. "This one at Maryland is fine. I just want to enjoy it."


[Last modified May 4, 2003, 06:13:03]

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