AURORA, Ill. -It was homecoming yesterday for Annika Sorenstam.
Her life and her public profile changed forever after scaling her personal "Mount Everest," the reigning queen of golf looked happy and refreshed. Sorenstam was back in her element, back among old friends.
The defending champion in the Kellogg-Keebler Classic at Stonebridge Country Club returned to the LPGA Tour stronger, more famous and more fulfilled than when she left it briefly last week to see what life on the men's side of the fence was like.
Sorenstam won praise, respect and maybe a host of new fans for women's golf for her efforts at the Colonial. The LPGA and Sorenstam benefited from her attempt.
Out from under the sunglasses that have shielded her from public view, Sorenstam learned she's one emotionally tough cookie; a woman capable of holding her own against the top males on the PGA Tour, handling intense media glare and carrying the LPGA's torch into a brighter-looking future.
"It was such an incredible week in so many ways," Sorenstam said. "I was only in Fort Worth six days, but so much happened. I've had a few days to reflect, and the more I think about it, the more I smile."
Sorenstam played well enough at the Colonial (71-74 for a 5-over-par 145) to stun her critics but not well enough to make the cut.
"I'm so glad I did it," she said. "The memories, the experience, the people, the fans, you name it. I almost get goose bumps sitting here talking about it because it was so cool. But I'm also happy to be here. It's time to move on."
What she moved on to became clearer two hours later when a gallery of 300-plus fans, many wearing yellow "Go Annika" buttons, applauded her arrival at the first tee. By Tiger Woods standards, the crowd was small; for an LPGA pro-am, it was huge.
"Everything is driven by the media," said LPGA Hall of Famer Julie Inkster. "Annika won 13 times last year and I don't think she got the recognition she deserved. She entered one men's tournament and it was unbelievable. It was like a rock concert. I think it's all media and television that will carry us and her to the next tier."
Showing no effects from her pressure-packed week on the national stage, Sorenstam drilled her opening drive down the first fairway. She then hit her approach shot within 8 feet of the cup on the 555-yard, par-5 hole and cheered as playing partner Kathy Cassert sank an eagle putt for their team.
The fact that people see her in a different light since the Colonial hit Sorenstam when she stopped for coffee on the way to the course.
"I went to Starbucks this morning and everybody recognized me there," she said. "I've had so many comments from people that have just been so great. It's either, `Now you've got my wife to start playing the game again' or, `My 4-year-old, she says women can do everything men can do.' "
Sorenstam sees no point in answering critics of her attempt, notably Vijay Singh and Nick Price.
"As I've said before, everyone is entitled to their opinion," she said. "It was a strange thing to see a woman on the PGA Tour and that probably took them off guard. But I have nothing against them at all."
Gary Reinmuth is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.