- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Ben Hogan would have appreciated Annika Sorenstam’s PGA Tour debut yesterday.

Fact is, rarely has a trip around the layout so synonymous with the Hawk so closely approximated his game.

From tee to green during her 71 at Colonial yesterday, Sorenstam was simply scintillating, hitting 13 of 14 fairways and finding either the fairway or the fringe in regulation on every hole.

“She swings it awesome,” said playing partner Aaron Barber of the Swede’s ball-striking brilliance. “I have never played with someone over 18 holes who didn’t miss a shot. She didn’t miss a shot … She’s a machine.”

Officially, the record books will reflect that the 32-year-old Sorenstam hit 14 greens during her historic first loop around the 7,080-yard, par-70 course. In reality, her fairways-and-greens routine was even more impressive, yielding 18 birdie putts.

As Barber claimed, she really didn’t miss a single shot all day. Sure, she pulled a drive slightly into the left rough on No.5, the third and final leg of Colonial’s dreaded “Horrible Horseshoe” (Nos. 3-5). Fine, she did wind up on the collar, as opposed to the green proper, on four holes (Nos. 12, 13, 8 and 9). And given, she did receive a pair of incredibly favorable bounces after slight pushes (Nos. 16 and 18).

But given the stress surrounding her situation as the first woman to tee it up among the men in 58 years, nobody should be harping on such technicalities. The bottom line is Sorenstam shrugged off the collective spite from the Vijay Singhs of the world and proved she could swap swings with any player, slacks or skirt, on the planet.

“She’s proved she belongs out here with the big boys,” crowed LPGA Hall-of-Famer Patty Sheehan, one of many beaming in the “I-told-you-so” camp after Annika’s opener.

Quite simply, even Sorenstam’s most outspoken skeptics, this space included, had to be impressed with the way she struck the ball with the whole world watching.

“I thought it would go away after a few holes,” said Sorenstam of the pressure. “But I was tense all day.”

You certainly couldn’t tell as she hit shot after shot on-line, exactly following her game plan without a single mis-hit. Even the best players routinely hit a handful of loose shots per round. Tiger Woods, for instance, is notorious for striping the occasional drive entire postal codes off-line. And nobody on the PGA Tour ever has 18 birdie putts, not even when a layout is playing as benign as wet, windless Colonial was yesterday. It simply doesn’t happen more than a handful of times per year. At least it hasn’t happened with regularity since Hogan, who won a record five times at Colonial, graced the game.

But just as with Hogan, who was also routinely described as a machine, there is a somewhat ugly flip side to Sorenstam’s ball-striking precision. Hogan was always a pedestrian putter at best.

Late in his career, the legendary Texan became famous for his contention that putting should be abolished. Why?

“There is no similarity between golf and putting,” Hogan argued. “They are two different games, one played in the air, and the other on the ground.”

Perhaps Sorenstam would agree. Because if the Swede was 18K gold en route to the green, she was pure pyrite once she got there.

All told, Sorenstam wound up with 33 putts on the day; only six players in the 113-player field had more. The fact that she stood over 18 birdie putts and still finished 1-over is a galling indictment of her ability with the short stick.

“Thirty-three putts is just not going to get it done out here,” said analyst Peter Kostis, who spent the entire USA broadcast subtly sparring with Sheehan.

Despite all the pre-tournament chatter surrounding Sorenstam’s length disadvantage, her skeptics always pointed to her shortage as her true Achilles’. On her own tour, Sorenstam is considered a competent putter at best. By PGA Tour standards, she’s a downright butcher with the blade. Her 29.89 putts per round average (on the LPGA Tour) would rank her 179th on the PGA Tour.

Yesterday, that hole in her game translated into just one birdie (No.13), two three-putt bogeys (Nos.5 and 9) and a slew of missed mid-range opportunities, providing a little “I-told-you-so” fodder for those in the skeptics’ camp as well.

“I was a little tentative with the putter,” Sorenstam said afterward.

She was a little tentative early on, leaving makeable putts well short on her first three holes. But eventually, she made just about every error you can with the flat stick, from misreads to overplaying the break to attacking what should have been a simple lag putt on her final hole. That error, consummated with a comeback miss from six feet, cost her a bogey that pushed her into a tie for 73rd, a position that wouldn’t have been good enough to make the cut (low 70 and ties) had it come yesterday.

Fact is, as well as she played yesterday from tee to green, she’ll have to score even better today relative to the rest of the field to survive the weekend ax. That won’t be easy given her tee time, which puts her off last among those groups starting on No.1. Late afternoon rounds bring a number of disadvantages into play: spike marks, wind and drier, faster greens.

Half of her game was up to the challenge yesterday. The golf world is waiting to see which half of our Hoganesque heroine prevails under today’s pressure.

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