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Forget Tiger; Annikahas golf's hottest streak


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

Okay, where's your 59, Tiger?

Okay, where's your 59, Tiger?

It's apples and oranges, women and men, Sorenstam and Woods, but no golfer is more sizzling than Annika.

Tiger Woods has won three straight tournaments, including a major (Masters). Annika Sorenstam has finished No. 1 in her past four starts, including a major (Nabisco).

But where's his 59?

Annika is hardly Tiger's match in some exotic, celebrity ways. Woods is incumbent monarch over all four men's Grand Slam tournaments; her only previous major conquests were in the U.S. Opens of 1995 and 1996.

At 25, he has career PGA Tour earnings of $23-million, more than tripling the LPGA take of 30-year-old Annika ($6.9-million). His average drive (305 yards) is half a football field longer than hers (255).

Still, if fairness is a factor, shouldn't Sorenstam be on a Wheaties box? Why isn't Larry King inviting her to his CNN interview desk? Doesn't she merit a Sports Illustrated cover?

While every Tiger breath was chronicled by two dozen CBS cameras at Augusta National, the day Annika shot 59 -- did I mention he has never gone lower than 61? -- ESPN finished showing a Nicolas Escude-Lleyton Hewitt tennis match before going live to Phoenix after her round was over.

No, I'm not yet so delirious as to suggest Sorenstam belongs in the Woods league, but shouldn't the media be flooding in significant numbers to Sacramento, where on Thursday she begins stalking a fifth consecutive LPGA win? Tiger won six in a row beginning in late 1999. We don't yet know how far Annika can go.

That magic afternoon in Phoenix, she had a cold, sniffling through all 59 strokes at the Moon Valley course. "Feeling lousy," she said, "but playing great."

Sorenstam birdied the first eight holes and 12 of 13. Al Geiberger (1977), Chip Beck (1991) and David Duval (1999) have history's 59s on the PGA Tour. Annika appeared to have a legitimate chance at 57 or 58. She hit all 18 greens in regulation. Missed one fairway with tee shots. Used 25 putts. Thirteen birds, no eagles, no bogeys and five pars.

"Annika often thinks she can birdie all 18 holes," said tour adversary Stefania Croce. "Her mind power is amazing. At her best, Annika has no doubts."

Sound a little Tiger-like?

"It's been like a wonderful dream, but I've not yet awakened," she said after the fourth straight win Saturday in Los Angeles. "All I'm seeing are wide, green fairways. No trees. No rough. No hazards. When I'm putting, the cups look huge."

Even so, Sorenstam needed help at Wilshire Country Club. Pat Hurst dominated the opening two rounds (67-67), amassing a 10-stroke gap on Annika (71-73).

But when Sorenstam got cooking, Hurst melted more pitifully than Greg Norman or Ed Sneed ever did in a Masters stretch. She bogeyed six of the final 10 holes, fumbling to 77. Sorenstam shot 66, then beat Mi Hyun Kim in a playoff. Never had a golfer overcome a final-round lead so large to win.

Sorenstam's sister, Charlotta, also is an LPGA player. At the same Phoenix tournament where Annika achieved 59, last year's champion was the 28-year-old Sorenstam sister. It is her only tour win.

Four years ago, Annika married David Esch. She has a deal to represent Callaway clubs; he was a sales rep for rival Ping. In the interest of marital solidarity, as well as economic good sense, he resigned from Ping and began helping to manage his wife's career.

Sorenstam has four wins and two seconds in six 2001 starts, earning $756,448, a sweet haul but only three-quarters of what Woods got for his week at the Masters.

Karrie Webb, last year's dazzler from Australia who also merited similar comparisons to Woods, has no 2001 trophies. Even so, foreign players have an LPGA stranglehold. In nine tournaments, there have been zero American-born champions.

Despite continuing Sorenstam heroics, crowds were small in Los Angeles. Volunteers were so scarce that the Home Depot Classic had no standard bearers to walk with players the first two rounds, keeping patrons apprised of scores.

Mickey Wright won four straight in 1963, Kathy Whitworth in 1969. Nancy Lopez won three in a row as a 1978 rookie, then skipped an event before winning two more in succession.

Maybe never has the LPGA had two players at the extreme heights of Sorenstam and Webb going head to head in their primes, but attention for the tour remains a struggle. Reasons? That's a debate for another time.

Whatever the Sorenstam comparisons, with Woods or Webb or LPGA sensations past, she has a professional glow that, at the least, should be considered Tiger-like.

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