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Sorenstam needs a challenger

6/1/2003

AURORA, Ill. -- A week after the revolution, the face of
women's golf looks exactly the same.

It may be more recognizable than ever, and even smile a little
more than usual. But its owner, Annika Sorenstam, insists almost
nothing else has changed.

"I've had a few days to reflect on the whole week and the more
I think about it, the more I smile,'' she said. "It was
incredible. I'm so glad I did it. The memories, the experience, the
people, the fans -- you name it.

"I almost get goose bumps sitting here talking about it because
it was so cool. But I'm happy to be here, and it's time to move
on.''

Yet not everybody is ready. The lingering question from last
week's gender-bender hangs over this week's LPGA Tour event: Will
anybody other than Annika and her handful of sponsors benefit from
it? And by how much?

Even heading over to the course for Thursday's pro-am, Sorenstam created a stir.

She was on "Oprah.'' When she stopped off at Starbucks for her
morning coffee, Sorenstam was accorded the star treatment. Where
things get sticky is if her competition, already awed by her golf,
wind up being intimidated by her newfound celebrity.

Ever since Nancy Lopez departed to raise her family, the women's
tour has been waiting for someone made up of equal parts carbon
steel and charm to audition for the role. Sorenstam always had the
mettle, but that wasn't the only thing she proved once more by
trading shots with the men.

She flashed more personality over the course of two days than
she has over 10 seasons playing against women. Sorenstam was, by
turns, insightful, funny, courageous and humble -- qualities that
came in handy to meet the challenge at hand.

But she's taken this one-woman show as far as she wants.

"I've tested myself, I know what I can do,'' Sorenstam said.
"And I don't need to do that again.''

And so maybe the only way she will be drawn out the next time is
for a rival -- or several -- to emerge on the LPGA Tour.

"She won 11 times last year on our tour, 13 times
internationally,'' Kelli Kuehne said. "Annika is without a doubt
the most dominant player in our game right now, maybe the most
dominant player ever. Or that we've seen in quite some time.

"She's in a league of her own, just like Tiger. ... Until the
rest of the players can step their game up and learn how to play
the game that she's playing, she's going to continue to be
dominant. She's that good.

"And I'm not bashing the rest of our players. I'm giving her
credit that she is that good.''

That much was apparent off the first tee on an otherwise cool
late spring morning.

Almost 500 people turned out at Stonebridge Country Club to see
Sorenstam blow her drive through the elbow of the fairway and
beyond where a local radio host, Kellogg executive and two contest
winners she was playing with hit their tee shots.

Still, that was 19,500 or so fewer spectators than turned up
last week to see her do the same to PGA Tour pros Aaron Barber and
Dean Wilson at Colonial Country Club.

Nobody would like to close that attendance gap faster than LPGA
Tour commissioner Ty Votaw. Advance ticket sales for this week are
up 70 percent, and walk-up sales for practice rounds and the pro-am
were four times larger than a year. Last year's tournament drew
only 55,000. Sorenstam had that many spectators on just three holes
last week.

And now it's Votaw's job -- as well as Sorenstam and her LPGA
colleagues -- to bring part of that audience to their game.

"Because of last week, she's lapped by several times the amount
of attention Nancy Lopez got when she first came out here in
1978,'' he said, then paused to watch a gaggle of reporters and
cameras follow Sorenstam down a narrow path toward the practice
green.

"One of the big attractions in golf, in any sport, really is
the chance to see the thing that everybody has been talking about.
And right now, we've got her.''

But even that kind of fame comes with an expiration date.

If Sorenstam continues to dominate her tour the way she did
before last week's flirtation with the PGA, most fans will think
worse of the LPGA, not better, and change the channel soon enough
in search of the next new thing.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org