Sorenstam's daunting task a test of skill and nerve
The history of golf dates back several centuries. The battle that 32-year-old Annika Sorenstam will wage at the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth on Thursday is much older than that.
Sorenstam didn't agree to accept a sponsor's exemption into the 114-golfer field in order to file a brief in the case of Man v. Woman. But that role, and the emotions it engenders on both sides, has been thrust upon her.
When Sorenstam steps onto the small first tee at Colonial, right next to the wall of champions, she will all but break into "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better." The Swedish production of "Annie Get Your Driver" will provide a snapshot, if not a definitive picture, of whether the best female golfer in the world can compete with the best males.
There's no question as to whether Sorenstam is the best that the LPGA Tour can offer. Since announcing herself by making her first victory the 1995 U.S. Women's Open, Sorenstam has won 43 LPGA tournaments, 20 of them since the beginning of 2001. She wants to move up to the next weight class, at least for one fight.
"This is a big challenge, for sure," Sorenstam said at Williamsburg, Va., where she played earlier this month in her last appearance on the LPGA Tour before the Colonial. "It's probably the biggest I will ever experience."
Sorenstam will make the most heralded debut on the Tour since Tiger Woods and his "Hello World" Nike Campaign arrived in Milwaukee in the autumn of 1996. The leader of the tournament will be a secondary news story, at least for the first 36 holes. How she plays will be dissected for meaning by golf pros, feminists and media the world over. In truth, what Sorenstam is doing is the same thing many golfers do at their own clubs -- looking for a better game.
"I'm very competitive," Sorenstam said. "I'm pushing myself harder and harder." So competitive that she and her husband, David Esch, stopped playing chess for "three or four years," by his estimate, after she threw a piece against the wall in anger.
It took Sorenstam several years to harness her desire into an advantage on the course. Too often, nerves have felled her. Of her 43 LPGA victories, only four have been in majors (Compare: Tiger Woods has 37 wins, eight majors). She has missed four cuts since the beginning of the 1995 season, all in majors. Case in point: as two-time defending champion in the 1997 U.S. Women's Open, Sorenstam missed the cut by three strokes.
While it's obvious that she is a more mature golfer now, she doesn't hide the fact that too often, she has defeated herself.
"I try too hard. I want it too badly," Sorenstam said. "I recognize the problem. Now I've got to deal with it. When I have a lot of time, I overprepare. I have a routine. If I stick to that, I'll be fine."
Maintaining that focus before the eyes of the world will be Sorenstam's greatest test. A Tiger-like crowd will follow her on Thursday and Friday, many more media and fans than she has ever seen on the LPGA Tour.
"Mentally, she's stronger than anybody else I've ever dealt with," Esch said. "I've never seen her make a decision and then second-guess it. She'll ask a lot of people. Once she makes it, she doesn't back down. Once she pulls a club, she swings it with confidence."
Esch's statement works as metaphor, or in the literal sense. Managing her game in unfamiliar conditions will be a stiff test. The 7,080-yard, par-70 Colonial is longer than what she sees with the women. So is the rough. She will be hitting into Colonial's smallish greens with mid-irons. Sorenstam believes hitting 5-iron into a green will be no greater test for her than the 9-irons she often uses on the LPGA Tour.
"It's the same thing," she said. "You've got to trust the club you're holding. Part of my routine is to make a decision and pull the trigger. Whether it's a five-iron, a seven-iron, it's a golf swing."
LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw excused her from the event in Corning next week with his Tour's blessings. If Sorenstam makes the cut, or at least shows she can compete, that may translate into more ticket sales for the LPGA and an increased appreciation for its best player. If Sorenstam throws up all over her Callaways, as she did in the Battle at Bighorn, the prime-time event that she and Karrie Webb played with Woods and David Duval two years ago, she will have opened herself up to every Simon Cowell in every men's grill in every golf club in the nation.
If she plays well, however, Sorenstam will become a household name rather than a curiosity. That doesn't appear to be her goal. She wants to be able to say she did it.
"When I'm 60 years old," Sorenstam said, " I'm going to show my grandkids, 'Whoa, I played in a PGA Tour event.'"
No matter how she plays, however, Sorenstam's work as a pioneer -- and there's a concept we haven't heard in these inclusive times -- has been a success. Michelle Wie, the 13-year-old who finished ninth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship -- the first LPGA major, in March -- has accepted an invitation into a Nationwide Tour event in Boise this fall. She also plans to compete in men's Canadian tour event and may also play in the U.S. Public Links Championship, a traditionally male event.
Wie's schedule has drawn attention but not a debate. For that, she, and all of us, may thank Sorenstam.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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