Transformed Annika has score to settle in Oregon
NORTH PLAINS, Ore. -- There used to be times when Annika Sorenstam looked almost defenseless. She didn't always have those biceps, remember. Nor was there that pleasantly confident hop in her step regardless of her score.
In fact, here at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland six years ago, Sorenstam appeared ready to be carried off on her shield at the U.S. Women's Open. The golf course beat her. Pummeled her, actually.
Sorenstam, who loves crunching numbers, does not forget a debt. She's ready for payback. She'd love for this week to be the ''Smashing Pumpkin Ridge'' tour, to get back the trophy that means the most to her and every other female golfer.
Sorenstam first wanted more to be a tennis player, like a million other little Bjorn Borgs in Sweden. She dreamed about winning the U.S. Open by whipping forehands down the line and cross-court at Flushing Meadow.
But she got sick of tennis; burned out by age 16, she said. Golf took over, and it was still about the U.S. Open. Just a different sport.
''I've always felt this is the biggest championship,'' she said Tuesday at the Open. ''We always play the toughest golf course. And as a kid, I would practice-putt at home, and I would say, 'This is to win the U.S. Open.' ''
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Someone teasingly asked if she ever said, ''This is to win the Du Maurier,'' the former LPGA major that seemed only important to Canadians. No, Sorenstam laughed, never that one. And not the Dinah (now the Nabisco Championship), nor the LPGA Championship, nor the British Open, which two years ago took the defunct Du Maurier's place as a major.
The British does mean a great deal to Sorenstam. It's No. 2 now for her. But this championship always will be No. 1, and it's been a while since Sorenstam's won it.
It was at the U.S. Open in 1995 that she had her pro breakthrough, winning by one shot over Meg Mallon at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Sorenstam was 24 then. As she watched Mallon miss the putt on 18 that would have tied it, Sorenstam was all big-blue eyes and little-girl smile.
It was her first title on the LPGA Tour.
''Your first victory is probably the one you remember most,'' she said. ''In my particular case, it turned out to be the biggest. So a lot of things changed at that time. First of all, I got a lot of confidence and I trusted myself. And that's what golf's all about.''
The next year, at Pine Needles in North Carolina, Sorenstam took the U.S. Open again. This one was a runaway, as she won by 6 shots.
''It just kind of came easy for two years. And I said, 'Oh, I can do this,''' Sorenstam said. ''And then when it was time for a major, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself knowing that I can win. I was thinking about Sunday when it was Thursday.''
So on Thursday, July 10, 1997, she stepped to the first tee at Pumpkin Ridge, thinking ''Sunday'' and ''threepeat'' and ''OK, stop thinking Sunday and threepeat!''
By the time she made the turn, it was a disaster. She had triple-bogeyed No. 9 to go to 5-over. The ''highlight'' shot that would be played again and again on television that night was her almost whiffing -- the ball did move 3 inches -- out of the tall grass near the ninth green.
Sorenstam staggered to a 77, and afterward said of the Nefarious No. 9, ''I was a little confused, I was upset. It was like, 'Where am I? What am I doing? How do I get out of this? Take me away from here.'''
So that was the end of the threepeat. She shot a 73 the next day, missed the cut and said she had no idea what to do on the weekend. And while Sorenstam doesn't really look back on that tournament as a particular landmark, those chronicling her career can.
She remained a very successful player -- but didn't win another major until 2001. That came in the Nabisco Championship, and it was really the start of the new Sorenstam era. Since January 2001, she's won 22 of her 45 LPGA titles and more than $6 million. That's really big money when you're not on the Tiger Tour.
And, of course, Sorenstam even took her shot at the Tiger Tour, even though Mr. Woods wasn't there. Sorenstam's 71-74 at the Bank of America Colonial in May wasn't good enough to make the cut, but it elevated her public profile substantially.
That wasn't the stated goal, although it was a nice by-product. Sorenstam now gets recognized when she's at the grocery store, when she goes out to eat. She's OK with that, which certainly wasn't always the case for the once very-shy Swede.
But the biggest benefit of the Colonial is that it made her all the stronger for facing her biggest tests on the LPGA Tour. That four-year gap in major victories greatly bothered Sorenstam, and her performance in majors was a blot on an otherwise terrific Hall of Fame resume.
Even last year, when she had 11 tour wins and gave a run at Mickey Wright's season record of 13, Sorenstam was disappointed at the majors. She repeated as winner at the Nabisco, but was third at the LPGA -- done in by a second-round 76 -- and was second at the U.S. Open -- done in by Juli Inkster's hot final-round putting.
Then Sorenstam prepared intensely for the British Open, yet missed the cut for the only time all year.
All of that is what some of the critics just didn't get about the Colonial appearance. Sorenstam wasn't trying to see how hard she could push the male pros, but how far she could push herself.
''The pressure that I felt on that tee, the 10th, which was my first that day, was incredible,'' Sorenstam said of the Colonial. ''How I was able to take the club back, I don't know.''
Yet, when it was over, she had the whole experience in her mind, freeze-framed so she can go back to it when she needs to.
The first test came two weeks later at the LPGA Championship, which she had not won in eight previous tries. Grace Park came at her like a Formula One car on the last day, but Sorenstam didn't get passed this time. She won in a playoff for her fifth major title.
Now, a month later, she's back at Pumpkin Ridge. She says that she was too young in her career to handle the pressure of the threepeat in '97. So much is different: the extra 30 yards she can get on her drives because of her fitness/strength training, the unwavering self-confidence, the understanding of just how difficult it actually was to win the Open the two times she did it.
Still, the thought that surfaced first when she got here was ...
''Well, I remember the triple on No. 9, which is not the memory you want to have,'' she said, smiling. ''You're supposed to have positive thoughts. But that hole has been haunting me for a while. So my goal is to improve on that hole, for sure.''
It could be that No. 9 doesn't really have a chance against Sorenstam this time. Because she has another realization about '97. She was very good then; everybody thought so. But nobody knew that the player she is now would leave that one in the dust.
''I've got to admit,'' she said, ''that I think I've improved much more than I really expected.''
Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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