- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Welcome to the Annika Sorenstam show.

After months of anticipation, it’s finally Colonial week, and the golf world is focused on the Swedish superstar’s showdown with the fellas in Fort Worth.

“This is a big challenge for sure,” Sorenstam said recently. “It is probably the biggest that I will ever experience.”

Not since Tiger Woods arrived at the 2001 Masters seeking to win his fourth consecutive major has there been so much pre-tournament attention lavished on a single player. And perhaps never in the annals of golf has there been such a fascinating case study in fairy tale vs. fact.

From the moment Sorenstam accepted a sponsor’s exemption in February to play in the Colonial, media have been smitten with the 32-year-old Swede. She was instantly elevated to heroine status for boldly agreeing to become the first woman to compete in a men’s event since the legendary Babe Didrickson Zaharias in 1945.

With her 11 victories in 23 LPGA starts last season — the most since Mickey Wright won 11 titles in 1963 — Sorenstam seemed to fit the profile of a fairy tale protagonist. A fairways-and-greens machine, Sorenstam’s season stats were staggering. She set LPGA records for scoring average (68.70) and earnings ($2,863,904). And perhaps most amazingly, her LPGA record for greens in regulation (79.7 percent) was nearly 5 percentage points better than the PGA Tour record (Tiger Woods’ 75.2 in 2000).

Her choice of courses was considered astute. After all, Colonial is one of the PGA Tour’s shorter tracks at 7,080 yards, somewhat negating her modest-by-male-standards driving distance (275.4 yards this season).

Her reasons for making this foray into the world of y-chromosomes were deemed noble: She wanted to satisfy her own competitive curiosity and “enjoy an experience I can tell my grandchildren about some day.”

And when world No.4 Phil Mickelson shared his thoughts on the subject, saying Sorenstam will “definitely make the cut and probably finish top 20,” the fairy tale concept was consummated.

Ever since, any man with the temerity to open his mouth in opposition to Sorenstam’s participation (see Vijay Singh) or with skepticism of her skills has been handed a black hat by the media and sent to the Fuzzy Zoeller corner for the prejudiced poor sports.

The folks in Las Vegas will give you 5-2 odds that Sorenstam survives the cut at the Colonial (3-over, 143 last year). Here are three major reasons the odds should be longer and Sorenstam’s week will be shorter:

1. Shape and spin

Ask any PGA Tour pro familiar with Sorenstam’s game to pinpoint her primary tee-to-green weakness, and he instantly will tell you ball flight. Sorenstam hits a low, straight ball with little or no spin. Now, that’s perfectly grand at most LPGA events, where Sorenstam is typically attacking relatively soft, large greens with short irons. But at virtually any PGA Tour venue, low, straight and spinless simply won’t cut it. At Colonial, which features some of the smallest, firmest greens on Tour, the combination could prove disastrous.

Think of it this way: If a pin this week is perched on a back left shelf, Sorenstam will have to run her straight, low, spinless approach (usually with a middle iron) up the slope to earn a birdie bid. She can’t just carry the slope, because her ball won’t spin and stop and is likely to end up running through the green.

She can’t play a draw over the meat of the green, because she can’t work the ball right to left. And she can’t play a drop-and-stop mortar shot a la Tiger, Mickelson or Els because her lower trajectory won’t allow it. Compared to most of the men in the field, she will have almost no margin for error.

PGA Tour players don’t spend endless hours on the range learning to control their spin, shape and trajectory just so they can execute called shots at clinics. Having all these shots at their disposal is necessary for success on Tour, where tucked pins often require a particular shape and trajectory. And this isn’t a new development.

Ben Hogan, who won five times at Colonial, once said: “You only hit a straight ball by accident. The ball is going to move left or right every time you hit it, so you had better make it go one way or the other. Make it go one way or the other, and you effectively double your target area.”

Shaped shots also hold their lines better than a spinless, straight ball. Think of professional bowling. When is the last time you saw a professional bowler chucking straight balls? If the wind kicks up this week, which it is wont to do in Texas, shaping shots will be even more critical. How has Sorenstam fared in the wind of late? Her only missed cut of last season came at the British Open in the wind at Turnberry.

“I can hit a 7-iron to the flag, straight, but these little trick shots is what they have in the bag that I need,” Sorenstam said of her recent practice rounds with players like Woods, David Frost and neighbor Frank Nobilo.

Given her basic ball flight, Sorenstam had better offer up a prayer for rain, windless days and uncharacteristically accessible pin positions.

2. Short game

This is the most widely acknowledged knock on Sorenstam’s game. When asked to assess her chances shortly after hearing Sorenstam would be playing at Colonial, countryman Jesper Parnevik was the first to single out her short game as a cause for concern.

“I’m not sure her short game is up to standard,” Parnevik said.

That description is fairly generous. Sorenstam is averaging 29.89 putts a round, a number that would rank her 179th on the PGA Tour. And her bunker play was described by one player earlier this season as “atrocious.” The stats bear out this assertion, showing she gets up-and-down out of the sand only 38.9 percent of the time, a figure that would rank her 174th on the PGA Tour.

Translation: She had better hit 79.7 percent of the greens.

3. Stress

Sorenstam has never been much of a pressure player. This is one rather glaring hole in her game that has been overlooked or understated routinely by the underdog-embracing media. Unlike Woods, with whom she is often incorrectly and unfairly compared, Sorenstam has not made a career of playing her best in the biggest events.

Of her 43 LPGA Tour victories, only four have come in women’s majors (1995, ‘96 U.S. Opens and 2001, ‘02 Nabisco Championships). That’s a remarkably modest total for a player with an otherwise-dominant resume.

“I think I haven’t won more majors because maybe I want them too badly,” said Sorenstam, victorious in only two of the last 25 women’s majors. “I’ve been trying too hard, over-focusing on those weeks.”

That puts into question her mental state entering a week she expects to be “like all four majors put together.”

Sorenstam has never focused on any week like this one. She’s made friends with half the world’s microphones over the last three months, finishing second in TV airtime only to Donald Rumsfeld. She’s called this week her “ultimate test” — no pressure there — and spent months preparing by playing courses from Texas to Tokyo from the tips.

And yet, no amount of internal pressure can prepare her for what she’s about to experience once she arrives today at Colonial.

“The real battle for Annika will be getting over the hoopla,” LPGA Hall of Famer Carol Mann said in a GolfWeb interview in February.

The folks at the Colonial have issued more than 800 media credentials, or six for each of the 156 players in the field this week. And without Tiger in the tournament to deflect some attention, all the members of the media will be hanging on Sorenstam’s every sigh. It took Tiger three years to adjust to that level of scrutiny. It’s outrageous to expect Sorenstam to adapt in three days.

And that’s just one of the three groups Sorenstam will encounter at Colonial. How will she be received by other players? Most likely will be indifferent or quietly affable. But some likely will be overtly frigid. How much stress will be produced by this awkwardness?

Then there are the fans. As opposed to the average LPGA event, which draws about as many spectators as a bris, Sorenstam is likely to be swallowed by 150,000 fans at Colonial. Ardent well-wishers can be just as distracting as hecklers.

Fact is, all the attention is likely to produce a stress tsunami for a player who has yet to master the relative pressure ripples of an LPGA major.

Add it all up, and Sorenstam looks more like a 5-1 pick to break 150 (75-75) than a 5-2 pick to make the cut. We’d love to be wrong, but this fairy tale sure feels like a flop.

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