- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

NEWPORT, R.I. — Annika Sorenstam kept trying to convince herself the U.S. Women’s Open was just another tournament despite reminders at every turn how much it meant and how long it had been since she won.

Tiger Woods kept calling her through the weekend to cheer her on. Every shot demanded so much thought. Then came the 18-hole playoff yesterday against Pat Hurst, which turned out to be the easiest task Sorenstam faced at Newport Country Club.

By seizing control from the start, Sorenstam built a big lead early and make short work of Hurst, closing with a 1-under 70 for a four-shot victory and her third Open title.

No doubt, this was the sweetest.

“It’s been 10 years. It’s been 10 long years,” Sorenstam said. “But I’m very grateful and thankful.”

And there was no mistaking that silver trophy behind the 18th green, shining beneath a blazing sun over the tip of Rhode Island.

USGA officials carried it onto the green moments after Sorenstam tapped in for par to clinch the win.

It had been so long since her 1996 Open victory Sorenstam didn’t even remember how to hold the trophy. She clutched it awkwardly at the front of the green with the Atlantic Ocean behind her, holding it in front of her face before shifting her hands to hoist it over her right shoulder and give photographers a clear view.

The view had been muddled recently as Sorenstam went four months without a victory, and old rivals Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak emerged anew by capturing the first two majors. All it took was one week at historic Newport for Sorenstam to deliver a defiant answer about the state of her game and that so-called slump.

“To come here this week with not such a great season and then to win is pretty ironic,” Sorenstam said. “I wanted to approach it like it was any other week. I was just thinking, ‘Pretend it’s not the Open. Try not to think about the consequences of this tournament. Enjoy yourself.’ I think I did pretty good.”

She was at her best in the playoff from the very first hole.

Sorenstam hit a sand wedge that landed in the first cut of rough behind the green and spun back to six feet for birdie, which turned into a two-shot lead when Hurst’s wedge was heavy and spun off the green. Hurst left her first putt 10 feet short and didn’t even get her par putt to the hole. It was all downhill from there.

Sorenstam added another birdie at No. 3, and even when the 35-year-old Swede got sloppy with a poor bunker shot on the sixth that led to a bogey, Hurst was even worse. She jabbed at a 3-foot putt that lipped out for double bogey.

“It hurts,” Hurst said. “You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to have.”

Sorenstam has plenty of chances in the majors, and this time she converted. She won her 10th major championship, tied with Babe Zaharias for fourth all time, and now she’s only five majors behind Patty Berg for the most in LPGA Tour history. Sorenstam has won a major in each of the last six years, the second-longest streak in LPGA history behind Mickey Wright.

But this wasn’t just another major.

The U.S. Women’s Open is by far the biggest event on the LPGA Tour, and Sorenstam figured she would pile up several titles after winning in 1995 and 1996, so dominant in her second victory that she missed only five fairways all week at Pine Needles and won by six.

But it has been nothing but frustration since then.

Juli Inkster overcame a two-shot deficit to beat her in 2002 at Prairie Dunes. Meg Mallon outplayed her at the Orchards two years later. Sorenstam sometimes beat herself, making bogey on the par-5 18th at Pumpkin Ridge to miss a playoff by one shot in 2003.

Sorenstam had won 63 times and seven majors since her last Open victory, establishing herself as the best in the game, missing only another U.S. Open title for validation. And when her 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Sunday evening rippled over the right edge of the cup, she might have wondered whether she was being teased again.

Sorenstam refused to let this one get away.

After she tapped in for par, she kissed the shaft of her putter and placed it behind her neck, raising her head to the skies in relief.

“This was important,” said her swing coach, Henri Reis, who flew over from Sweden to work on a stronger grip for Sorenstam, then watched her miss only three fairways and four greens in the playoff.

Sorenstam had gone eight tournaments without winning, her longest drought in five years. She lost a 54-hole lead at one event, missed the cut in another and wasn’t a serious threat in either of the first two majors.

“They expect too much sometimes,” Reis said. “In Sweden, they expect even more. They expect her to win every tournament.”

All three of the LPGA Tour’s majors have been decided in a playoff, but this was the only snoozer. Sorenstam made sure of that with relentless accuracy that forced Hurst to counter with birdies, and she wasn’t even close. Hurst made 16 birdies through the first four rounds, by far more than anyone, but didn’t make any in the playoff until a 60-foot putt on the final hole for a 74.

The margin of victory was the largest in a U.S. Women’s Open playoff since Kathy Cornelius won by seven shots 50 years ago.

“I didn’t make any putts. That was what probably kept me back,” Hurst said. “If I could have made some putts, it would have been closer. I could have put pressure on her.”

Sorenstam won for the 68th time in her career, leaving her 20 short of Kathy Whitworth’s all-time record. She earned $560,000 from the biggest prize in women’s golf, pushing her over $20 million for her career.

And how about this for timing: Sorenstam can claim her first national championship.

The Swede became a naturalized citizen two weeks ago, and she never won a national title growing up in Sweden.

For Hurst, it was a sloppy finish to an otherwise solid week at Newport. She was trying to join Joanne Carner as the only players to capture the U.S. Junior Girls, U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open. But she ran into the wrong player at the wrong time.

Hurst dropped to 0-4 in career playoffs, with three of those losses coming to Sorenstam. She knew it was over on the 17th hole, and as she walked up the final fairway, she turned to Sorenstam and asked her for an autographed golf ball.

“She’s a class act in women’s golf, and she’s very good for us,” Hurst said. “Someone like that, you want them on your side.”

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