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Watching Webb win was Sorenstam's motivation

Annika Sorenstam admits Karrie Webb's success was driving force in her re-emergence.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


Annika Sorenstam could put her clubs in storage, hopscotch back and forth between homes in Orlando and Lake Tahoe, Nev., work in a visit to her native Sweden, not play another tournament, and her accomplishments in 2001 still would go down as one of the more remarkable seasons in LPGA Tour history.

She has won five tournaments, including a major championship and another win coming back from 10 strokes. She has nine top-10 finishes in 10 starts. Oh, and she became the first player in LPGA history to shoot 59.

But Sorenstam is very much looking forward to this week's U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. It is where in 1996 she won the second of consecutive Open titles. And it is where she would like to add a second straight major this year, putting her in position to achieve a Grand Slam.

"I would be lying to you if I said I haven't thought about it," said Sorenstam, referring to the notion of winning all four majors in a season. "But this is the first time I've won the Nabisco Championship, so this is the first time I've really had a chance to think about it. I've got just one major and it gets harder and harder after that. But, obviously, I'm playing as good as I ever have."

A victory this week would put Sorenstam halfway to the Slam, looking toward triumphs at the LPGA Championship in June and the Women's British Open in August. And the way Sorenstam goes about setting goals and attaining them, anything is possible.

At age 30, Sorenstam has again established herself as the No. 1 player, retaking the title from Karrie Webb, the defending Open champion who hasn't won a tournament this year. A strenuous off-season conditioning program and a renewed commitment to her short game are reasons for Sorenstam's ascent.

"She just seems to be really focused," husband David Esch said. "There aren't a lot of people who see the light at the end of the tunnel. She understands that in order to get to D, you've got to go to A, B and C. She can put up with the monotonous day-to-day grind of chipping and putting and know it's going to pay off.

"Even now with the success she's having, she's not slacking off. She's motivated even more."

And it doesn't take much for Sorenstam to admit Webb was a driving force. Sorenstam won five times last year, but was largely overlooked because Webb won seven times, including two majors, led the money list and was player of the year.

"I finished fourth on the money list in '99 and I realized that that's not where I wanted to be," Sorenstam said. "With the run that Karrie has had, so much success, winning majors, the money list and so forth, I just realized that that's what I wanted."

"When Annika saw what Karrie came and did the last two years, it forced her to raise her own game," former Open champion Laura Davies said. "Karrie pushed Annika to get even better, to put even more work in. I think what you're seeing this year is a result of that."

Sorenstam has been pointing toward the Open for some 10 months, all the way back to July when Webb won at the Merit Club in suburban Chicago.

And this is the tournament where it all started for Sorenstam. She won the 1995 title, then repeated at Pine Needles. From virtual unknown to a rising superstar.

"I will put my money on Annika that she will be near, if not in, the lead on Sunday," 1999 Open champion Juli Inkster said.

It's not as if Sorenstam slipped off the radar. She captured Player of the Year trophies in 1995, 1997 and 1998. But in 1999 she had two victories and Webb had six. Sorenstam bounced back last year, but Webb stole the spotlight.

"I knew I needed to put in some hard work, a little bit everywhere in my game, but mostly my short game, chipping and putting," she said. "I had several months off over the winter and all I did was chipping and putting twice a day. I figured there was nothing wrong with my technique. It was just a matter of practicing, practicing and doing it under pressure in tournaments. After putting all those hours in, I knew it was going to pay off."

Sorenstam saw Webb make so many putts, she figured that was the difference. And to make more, she altered her practice routine. Instead of taking a few balls on the practice green and knocking them toward the hole, Sorenstam put in place a practice regimen. She hits putts with her right hand only, trying to make a good stroke. Then she sticks tees in the ground, 9-15 feet from the cup, setting a ball by each tee. She reads the putt, then tries to hole it.

"I have to work at it now," she said."After I decided that, the joy for the game and my motivation came back."

Sorenstam was determined to put in her time and get her rest. So she skipped the first three tournaments of the year in Florida, then joined the tour in Hawaii for two stops where she finished second twice. From there, she shot a tour-record 265 to win the Welch's/Circle K Championship, followed with 59 on her way to victory at the Standard Register Ping. She won the year's first major at the Nabisco Championship and then captured her fourth straight tournament at the Office Depot. She added the Chick-fil-A title this month.

"It's really fun to see an athlete at their peak performance," said Meg Mallon, who was Sorenstam's playing partner the day she shot 59. "She's worked incredibly hard on physical conditioning and her golf game and trying to make a more consistent swing. It seems like she's getting her confidence back in her putting, and she's letting it happen. That's fun to watch, as another athlete."

"I've been playing very solid, especially off the tee, hitting a lot of fairways and a lot of greens," Sorenstam said. "I think the difference from last year is I'm making the putts. It's really been a dream come true the last few months."

Annika Sorenstam

AGE: 30

NATIONALITY: Sweden

LPGA TOUR VICTORIES: 28

MAJORS: U.S. Women's Open ('95, '96), Nabisco Championship ('01)

U.S. OPEN APPEARANCES: 8

LAST YEAR: T-9

NOTES: Won her second Open at Pine Needles in 1996, and returns at the pinnacle of women's golf. Along with becoming the first woman to shoot 59, has won five times and finished out of the top 10 in only one tournament -- the rain-shortened Longs Drugs Challenge when she was going for a record-tying fifth straight win. LPGA leader in hitting fairways and greens, always a good combination in the Open.

- Source: Associated Press

* * *

56TH U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN: Thursday-Sunday, Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, Southern Pines, N.C.

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