Sorenstam in a field of her own

Victories: Kathy Whitworth's record of 88 career wins was once thought unreachable. That was before Annika Sorenstam crept into the picture with 61.

Lpga Championship

June 08, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The record has been sitting there for 20 years, ever since Kathy Whitworth won the last of her 88 career victories on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.

It has become an elusive number, magical yet obscure given the status of women's golf these days compared with the PGA Tour.

No one has come close to even threatening a mark that is six more wins than the record Sam Snead set among the men. Nancy Lopez stopped 40 wins short, JoAnne Carner was 45 shy.

Annika Sorenstam is 27 wins behind Whitworth.

"I've always thought the 88 wins were incredible, I don't know if I can ever achieve that," Sorenstam, 34, said last month. "It's never been a goal of mine. I always thought it was so unbelievable, so far away."

But given what Sorenstam has done in her own career, Whitworth's record is now within her sights, if not quite yet within her reach.

Having won her first three events this season, and five overall, including the year's first major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, Sorenstam will be looking to win her third straight McDonald's LPGA Championship this week.

If successful, Sorenstam will become the first player in LPGA history to win the same major championship three years in a row. The tournament will be played at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace for the first time after 11 years at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del.

"She's the yardstick and we've all got to fit in place," said England's Laura Davies, who was the No. 1 player in the world when Sorenstam turned pro in 1994. "A few have gotten close to her, but she's in a different class than the rest of us."

Some of her peers had counted on Sorenstam's personal issues having an impact on her game. If anything, she has become more focused since her divorce after eight years of marriage to David Esch became final in February. Her life is certainly different.

"It's taken a drastic turn," Sorenstam said last month, sitting with two reporters in a conference room at the Kingsmill Spa and Resort in Williamsburg, Va., before the Michelob ULTRA Open. "Now I can throw myself into golf and try to do something that I enjoy. I have nothing else to pull me away from the game, unless I want to start a new career."

That seems unlikely, given how dominant she is in her current one.

But the question needs to be asked: Will she hang on just to get to 88 or 89, as other athletes have done, often feebly and usually failing, as they chased records in their respective sports?

"I think maybe if I play another three or four years and I'm around 80 [wins], maybe," said Sorenstam, who recorded her 61st Sunday at the Shoprite LPGA Classic. "But if I were at 75, that's a lot. If I were at 80 or 85, maybe I'd play another year and see what happens."

Whitworth expects Sorenstam to break her record.

"I see no reason why she won't," Whitworth, now 65, said recently from her home outside Dallas. "It's kind of fun to watch. I wasn't even thinking about Mickey's record [of 82, set by Mickey Wright]. It's something that just happens at the end of your career and it happened at the end of mine."

Remaining in focus

Once, all these numbers seemed almost unthinkable to Sorenstam.

"When I came out as a rookie, I didn't know if I could win a single tournament," she said, the honesty in her eyes making the lunacy of her statement almost believable.

The breakthrough came at the 1995 U.S. Women's Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Sorenstam held off Meg Mallon to win her first LPGA tour event. Sorenstam won two more that year, and three the next, including the Open.

Though she won 17 events from 1997 through 2000, her record in majors was spotty. After finishing first on the money list three times in a four-year period, Sorenstam was fourth in 1999. Karrie Webb of Australia had climbed to No. 1 in 1999 and 2000, and Se Ri Pak of South Korea was a solid No. 2.

"I looked at myself and said, `How can I get to the next level?' " recalled Sorenstam. "I've always thought that golfers should be like all the other athletes, why shouldn't we train like other athletes?"

Sorenstam saw what Tiger Woods, then in the most dominant period of his career, had done by transforming himself with intense weight training, a method most golfers had previously looked at as if it were voodoo.

With the help of Orlando-based personal trainer Kai Fusser, whose clients are mostly windsurfers and wakeboarders, Sorenstam became the strongest, and eventually longest, player on the women's tour.

"I can't believe how she's changed her body type," said LPGA veteran Sally Little. "When she first came out here, she couldn't hit it out of her shadow. She has such a different physique, it's unbelievable."

Sorenstam is not quite as buffed and bulked as Woods, now a close friend and practice partner because of a professional connection to their agent, Mark Steinberg, along with a personal one to Woods' Swedish-born wife, Elin, but Sorenstam makes most of her competitors look as scrawny as she once was.

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