Face it, Annika's debut not about birdies and bogeys

Originally Published: May 22, 2003
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Sorenstam's hole-by-hole scores
FORT WORTH, Texas -- By her standards and certainly by the standards of a hopeful public, Annika Sorenstam played well Thursday at the Bank of America Colonial. But if the first woman in a PGA Tour event in 58 years wants to make more than history -- specifically, if she wants to make the cut -- she's going to have to make some putts.

Annika Sorenstam
Among the unique moments Thursday was this hug between Dean Wilson and Annika Sorenstam.

Playing golf so conservatively it could serve in the Bush cabinet, Sorenstam shot a one-birdie, two-bogey, 1-over 71, which is tied for 73rd, seven strokes behind the leader, Rory Sabbatini. With a 36-hole cut of the low 70 players and ties, she is, if you will, in no man's land.

But let's face it -- Sorenstam's day is about her score the way that The Godfather is a movie about an olive oil salesman. Something much bigger took place Thursday at Hogan's Alley. The best female golfer in the world, after three months in a searing spotlight, proved she had the game to hang with the best male golfers. In fact, she finished tied with one of her partners, Dean Wilson, and beat the other, Aaron Barber, by a stroke.

"I would love to make the cut," Sorenstam said. "But if I play like I did today, then it really doesn't matter."

Her strategy -- to hit fairways and greens, and to ignore the back-flipping butterflies in her stomach -- served her well. To make sure she stayed in the fairway, Sorenstam pulled her driver only nine times on the 14 driving holes. She hit 13 of 14 fairways, and paid for the lone miss, at No. 5, with a bogey. She hit 14 greens, and missed the other four by no more than 3 feet.

However, the caution she displayed everywhere on the course led her astray when she putted, which she did 37 times. She consistently left her putts short. The two bogeys she made came when she putted aggressively past the hole.

"I was a little tentative all day long," Sorenstam said. "When I get a little nervous, I get a little tentative. And that's what happened. I kept telling myself, 'Hit it,' and then I would hit it and suddenly I would have a long putt coming back."

The difference between her game and the other 112 games at Colonial is simple. She played the way that the men play the U.S. Open -- try not to make mistakes, accept par, and keep the ball in play. The men played as if it were another PGA Tour event with soft, wet greens. They fired at the pins.

That said, the conditions could not have been better for the 32-year-old Swede. Sorenstam started on the back nine, which has gentler opening holes than does the front. The wind that regularly bedevils Colonial never showed while Sorenstam was on the course. Her playing partners supported and encouraged her throughout the day. On the practice green before the round, Barber walked over and said, "Remember, we're doing this together."

"And I said, 'You're right,'" Sorenstam said, "so he was as nervous as I was."

Wilson held out a hand for Sorenstam to give him five after her birdie at 13. On the ninth green, after they putted out, Wilson performed a career first -- he hugged a playing partner. Probably a career last, too.

"I was just so proud of her," Wilson said, "just the way she handled herself, the way she obviously played with all the attention that she's been getting this week, and it's just been a circus for her."

No one, not even Sorenstam, could have predicted the boost of energy she would receive from the gallery. The reaction to her by the spectators made it clear that Vijay Singh, Nick Price, and the other, less-vocal opponents of her appearance at Colonial are a distinct minority. The fans cheered everything she did, good, bad or indifferent. At the ninth hole, the spectators in the stands behind the green cheered as her ball hit within 10 feet of the pin. That it rolled three feet off the back of the putting surface seemed to be beside the point. They kept cheering.

Among the T-shirts outside the ropes:

"Annika, Got Balls?"

And this, on the back of a small child: "Singh a different tune, Vijay."

Sorenstam arrived at Colonial at 7 a.m., two hours before her tee time, which is her habit, said her husband, David Esch. She met her caddie, Terry McNamara, at 7:15. At one point before her round, she spoke with Pia Nilsson, the former Swedish National Team coach and Sorenstam's longtime mentor.

"I was just joking with her," Nilsson said. "I reminded her of one of her cats, whose name is Nelson. I said, 'You know what? He doesn't care.'"

Sorenstam chipped and putted, went to range, came back and putted, and then, she said, "I was ready, and the time was going so slow. I stood, and waited and waited and it was never my turn to hit."

As Sorenstam walked down a roped-off ramp of slick, wet grass from the practice green to the 10th tee, the whoops and the applause from a crowd began. She signed a few scorecards for the history books (How long before one is on eBay?). She walked to the tee markers, five minutes before her 8:58 a.m. CT tee time, took five practice swings, then retreated to the right side of the tee box to wait some more.

Sorenstam hit last, and after striping her driver down the middle of the fairway -- past the irons that Barber and Wilson hit off the tee -- she visibly sagged with relaxation. A smile as wide as Texas appeared on her face. She walked up the tee box, caught up with McNamara, and said, "All right! Yeah!"

Though Sorenstam made three routine pars and followed with the birdie at 13, she said the nervous feeling she had never let up. She missed a six-footer for birdie at the par-3 16th that would have dropped her to 2-under, only one stroke off the lead at that time.

That would be as close as she came to threatening the leaders.

Not that anyone expected her to do so. The measure of Sorenstam's round came by a different yardstick. Dan Forsman, one shot off the lead, said as much as he and Steve Elkington walked down the 10th hole. They looked over and saw Sorenstam at the nearby 17th hole.

"Steve made a comment, 'You know, Dan, this gal's got a lot of class,'" Forsman said. "He was talking about her, walking down the back nine, how she's handled everything. And she's really a sharp gal. Steve said, 'I don't know if I could have handled it as well as she's handled it.' I said, 'Yeah, she's a classy lady.'"

Now, if she can only make some putts. After her news conference, Sorenstam went to the practice green to try and find the speed of the greens. She has to make some putts if she wants to make history for four rounds instead of two.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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