Sorenstam talks softly, but carries a big club

Swede one LPGA win away from being only 2nd to take 5 straight


April 19, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The most significant streak in golf this week doesn't belong to Tiger Woods.

The most significant tournament in golf this week doesn't include Tiger Woods.

The most significant story in golf this week doesn't involve Tiger Woods.

Annika Sorenstam has been remarkable in her eight-year career on the LPGA Tour, introducing herself with the first of back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 1995 and winning more tournaments in the 1990s than anyone else, despite not coming on the scene until the decade was nearly half over.

What she has done this year is the stuff of legends.

In March in Phoenix, Sorenstam became the first woman to shoot 59 in a competitive round; she also set the LPGA's four-round scoring record of 27-under par. She won a playoff after being 10 shots down going into the final round last week in Los Angeles, tying a 41-year-old tour record.

It has led Sorenstam, 30, to the brink of making history again, starting today at the Longs Drugs Challenge in Sacramento, Calif. The Swede will be trying to win her fifth straight LPGA event, a feat accomplished only by Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez.

"I feel great about my game," Sorenstam said yesterday during a national teleconference. "I have a chance to make history, but I feel very comfortable. I feel very calm about my game. I don't really feel too much pressure. I am just happy to keep playing on a roll and see how far I can go."

Sorenstam is much more relaxed than she was in 1997, when she had a chance to become the first female to win three straight Open titles. She shot 6-over par 78 the first round, missed the cut at Pumpkin Ridge, and didn't win another major until this year's Nabisco Championship in March.

"I think I have learned a lot along the way. I think in 1997 I was probably a little naive," she said. "I think in the majors I have teed it up and just been too anxious, wanting to win the tournament on Thursday. ... I've learned to become a lot more patient."

Just as Karrie Webb's accomplishments last season were overshadowed by those of Woods, Sorenstam's feats the past month were dwarfed when the world's most celebrated athlete ended his seven-month drought and won three straight tournaments, most recently the Masters.

With Woods off this week after becoming the first player in history to hold the four majors titles simultaneously, Sorenstam will be trying to get her share of the spotlight. Not that anyone would notice, since Annikamania has yet to kick in.

"I don't sit at home thinking about how much attention Tiger is getting," said Sorenstam. "Men's sports have always been more popular than women's sports. I'm happy with the coverage I've gotten. What Tiger is doing is phenomenal. It happening at the same time puts golf in the front, so I think it's great."

In following the likes of Lopez and two other Hall of Famers, Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth, by winning four straight times, Sorenstam is giving the LPGA another chance to promote itself. But is anyone outside a few thousand hard-core Golf Channel addicts paying attention?

LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw points to improved television ratings -- an average of 20 percent over last year, he says -- as a byproduct of Sorenstam's streak. He looks to the potential of a renewed rivalry between Sorenstam and Webb, the tour's dominant player with 13 wins the past two years.

"These next few weeks are going to be a real horse race leading up to the biggest purse in the history of women's golf in this year's U.S. Open at Pine Needles, which is where Annika won her second Open," said Votaw. "It's a great rivalry between Annika, Karrie and also Se Ri Pak."

Said Sorenstam: "I think it's great if you have a rivalry with two players, especially if they are at the top of their games, winning back [and forth]. ... I am expecting Karrie to come back after her break as good as ever. It's going to be a tough summer."

Sorenstam's streak has created a lot less of a buzz than Lopez's in 1978. Then a 21-year-old rookie, Lopez started a streak of five straight wins at the Greater Baltimore Classic. After winning three straight weeks, Lopez took a week off, then won two more, including the LPGA Championship.

"I think [hype] was probably more back when I did it," said Lopez, who made appearances with Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, and was featured in Sports Illustrated. "I think, too, because women were always fighting to have that kind of attention. ... Now women get a lot more attention than they used to."

Judy Rankin, whose Hall of Fame career was winding down when Lopez was starting out, believes that Sorenstam is a much different player.

"Nancy was taught to hit it as hard as she could and get it in the hole as fast as she could," said Rankin, now an ABC golf analyst. "Annika's approach to the game is much more mechanical, statistical and scientific."

But Lopez sees similarities.

"You don't realize you're in a streak really at that time," Lopez said. "I just remember playing very well, focused on just hitting fairways and greens. ... When you're in that kind of momentum, you just feel so confident. When you look at Annika, you see confidence."

That is not the only marked difference in Sorenstam. After winning just twice in 1998 and slipping noticeably behind Webb, then winning five times but not gaining ground last year, Sorenstam became more dedicated to the fitness program she began 17 months ago.

It has helped her stamina, as well as given her a few more yards off the tee. The improvement in her putting came from working with former PGA champion Dave Stockton.

It has all come together in the past month.

"I think I'm like a little snowball," said Sorenstam, who last week became the leading moneywinner in LPGA history, with nearly $7 million. "The more I roll, I get bigger and bigger. It feels like I'm walking on clouds right now."

Is that Cloud 59?

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