- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam are linked in a way no male and female athlete have ever been. They’re like Burns and Allen, Stiller and Meara, Death and Taxes.

Think about it. Did anybody ever talk about, oh, Cheryl Miller and Magic Johnson in the same sentence? How about FloJo and Carl Lewis — or Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf?

There’s always been this invisible barrier between men’s and women’s sports. On one side you have Apples, on the other Oranges. It’s a waste of breath, generally, to compare male and female athletes because, well, they compete on different playing fields, in utterly separate worlds.

But golf is unique, and so, perhaps, is this Woods-Sorenstam connection. In golf, 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus can tie for sixth in the Masters (ahead of Tiger), 14-year-old Michelle Wie can finish fourth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship (ahead of Annika). In golf, the usual distinctions — age, gender — are more blurred. A woman can tee it up in a men’s event and not come in last, as Sorenstam and Wie have shown.

Further coupling Annika and Tiger in the public mind is that she has sought him out, played a few rounds with him, picked his brain. On top of that, there’s the bond that comes from being, very possibly, the best male and female players of all time. (We’ll know for sure in a decade or so.)

Still, it’s strange, this Tiger-Annika Thing. Usually when a guy and gal athlete come up in the same conversation, it’s either because they’re (a) dating (e.g. Jimmy Connors and Chrissie Evert in the ‘70s) or (b) married (e.g. Graf and Andre Agassi). Woods and Sorenstam, though, are more like friendly rivals — in parallel universes. They’re both great, but who’s greater? That seems to be the debate du jour.

The fire was stoked a bit more by developments over the weekend. In the Byron Nelson Championship, Tiger missed his first cut since 1998, ending his record streak at 142. In the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, meanwhile, Annika notched her 60th LPGA victory, lapping the field by 10 shots. The first could be taken as another indication that Woods isn’t quite as Tigerly as he used to be, while the second would appear to suggest that Sorenstam, at 34, still hasn’t reached her peak. She has won eight of 11 tournaments going back to last year, which makes her officially Hotter Than Tiger Has Ever Been.

Proclaiming herself “a better player today than a few years ago,” Annika even broached the subject of the Grand Slam. “It’s a goal of mine,” she said, “and I’m not afraid to share it. … That’s what keeps me motivated, to set new high goals.” As for Kathy Whitworth’s seemingly unreachable mark of 88 titles, Sorenstam wouldn’t rule that out, either — basically because she never expected to rack up No. 60 so soon (if ever).

They were the kind of all-things-are-possible comments that Woods is famous for making. Indeed, it was almost as if she was channeling him — the fearlessness, the single-mindedness, the insatiable desire to dominate. Heck, lately, on the course and off, she’s been doing a better impression of Tiger than Tiger himself.

Not that anyone needs to be taking up a collection for Eldrick. He recently made off with his fourth Masters green jacket, if memory serves, and he’s already won three events this year. But he no longer has a monopoly on Shock and Awe in golf. Sorenstam’s feats are, at the moment, every bit as wondrous as his were once upon a time (except, of course, for the Tiger Slam).

Interestingly, Annika’s career hit a dip at the same point Woods’ did. In 1999, when she was 28, she managed just two victories — her lowest total in the last 11 years. In 2004, at the same age, Tiger won only once — after averaging more than six titles the previous five years. Sorenstam regrouped rather nicely, you may have noticed; will Woods do the same?

There I go again, comparing them. But then, it’s almost unavoidable. There’s nobody in women’s golf within a three-wood of Sorenstam, resume-wise. Woods, with his 43 victories and nine majors, is in a similar situation. So we cast around for other immortals to measure them against, to give them definition. Fortunately for Tiger and Annika, they have each other.

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