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Sorenstam's 2003 goals extend far beyond Colonial

3/19/2003

Ten weeks into a new golf year filled with storylines and subplots galore, members of the LPGA Tour hit their first meaningful shots of 2003, teeing it up in Tucson having already received more publicity than they ever dreamed.

They can thank Annika Sorenstam for that, and it only indirectly has to do with her winning 13 times worldwide 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 Bank of America Colonial in May.

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

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

The LPGA Tour's official season finally began last week at the Welch's/Fry's Championship, where Sorenstam was a big story -- even though she didn't play. Meg Mallon made headlines when she nearly matched Sorenstam's all-time scoring record of 59, settling for a second-round 60. Australian Wendy Doolan was the surprise winner of the tournament.

Sorenstam elected to take the week off and instead kicks off her 2003 season this 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 warm-up. Indeed, Sorenstam has big goals for this year on the LPGA Tour, even if matching her win total from 2002 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 mindset, 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 in Orlando, spent a good part of her offseason in the gym. She had already 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 shaping 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 as their bread and butter?

She dissects her game, and looks for the tiniest things to improve. Last year, Sorenstam felt her bunker play could be better. This year, she wants to improve her putting stats, even though they are somewhat skewed because she leads the LPGA by hitting a staggering 80 percent of the greens in regulation.

Sorenstam, 32, has 42 LPGA Tour titles -- which qualifies her 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 ... 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.''

Sorenstam 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 Tiger Woods' popularity to promote others. Perhaps Sorenstam's will lead to more recognition for women 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 championship next week, the Nabisco Championship, where Sorenstam is defending.

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.

No doubt, it will be an interesting time for the LPGA.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com