Before it's too late, savor Sorenstam's numbing run

June 12, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

ANNIKA Sorenstam was sailing through an innocuous interview after her near-perfect second round in the LPGA Championship on Friday when someone asked how long she planned to keep playing, seeing as she had recently signed a new, five-year endorsement deal.

Sorenstam, 34, said, "I'm definitely playing this year and next year, and then we [will] go from there." She went on to say that opening a golf school was one of her dreams, and that there were "a lot of things" she could do.

After hearing that, I found it easier to go out and watch her ruthlessly rule her world yet again yesterday in the third round at Bulle Rock.

She is so superior to the rest of women's golf that the run of scores, wins and records she produces is almost numbing; you can reach the point where you just shrug, take it for granted and turn the channel.

But when Sorenstam starts hedging on her plans beyond 2006, it's time to stop, focus and get a good snapshot of her now, when she is at her best, a peak perhaps no women's golfer has ever reached.

She might not dominate this overwhelmingly for that much longer.

Oh, sure, she'll keep playing and winning. She still has goals. She is trying to win a Grand Slam this year. She is almost within sight of Kathy Whitworth's LPGA record of 88 career wins. She recently admitted she now has "nothing else" to distract her from golf after having divorced her husband of eight years.

Yet she also admitted Friday that "the question is how active I will be" after finishing the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

It could be that her success (six wins in eight starts in 2005 if she wins today) is starting to numb her, too.

With eight major titles and 61 overall victories already in her pocket, she certainly has the right to start running out of motivation.

With that in mind, the chance to follow her around Bulle Rock yesterday (or on any day, for that matter) was best viewed as the rare chance to see a peaking athlete who has all but perfected a game, the rarest achievement in sports.

Sorenstam in 2005 is Michael Jordan in his prime, Tiger Woods at his most dominating, the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig -- so superior that the outcome is decided before the first ball is struck.

After nearly holing four straight iron shots near the end of the second round Friday, she carried a two-stroke lead into the third round yesterday and immediately started hammering away, dropping irons near pins again. When a 12-foot putt on No. 6 and a 25-footer on No. 7 both dropped, her lead was up to five. Soon, it was six.

She was playing the same course as everyone else, but a different game, winnowed of sloppiness and mistakes. The large gallery following her murmured with surprise when she didn't hit it straight and long off the tee, stick an iron near the pin and sink a birdie putt.

The fans cheered for her, by the way, seemingly standing back and appreciating the show rather than rooting for her to fail and make the tournament more interesting -- a situation Tiger Woods sometimes faced when fans got tired of him winning so easily.

As it happened, Sorenstam did briefly flatten out yesterday, missing a few putts as her lead slipped to three. But "I got on fire," she said, and ended with birdies on No. 16 and No. 17 as the lead grew back to five.

The chances of anyone beating her today lie somewhere between minuscule and microscopic. She's just too good.

Laura Davies, the British veteran who played with her yesterday, said Friday that Sorenstam "was the best golfer that ever played, man, woman," adding, "I'm not saying she's as good as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer. But let's face it, there are some good players on this tour and virtually every week she's winning, and not even Tiger did that. For who she's up against, she's the best."

She has been ranked No. 1 in the world for eight of the past 11 years and continuously since 2001, so you know it can't last forever. But even against that backdrop, she is playing the best golf of her life now, her longer drives and dead-on short game relentlessly crushing the hopes of all opponents. Her 69 yesterday was her 14th straight round under 70.

"I'm very happy with how I'm playing," she said.

From a distance, the blur of unparalleled success does have a tendency to numb, perhaps because it seems to come so easily for her, but also because Sorenstam is a kindly, low-key figure rather than a strutter.

But while it might be a blur from a distance, Sorenstam's current game is clear and vivid up close, a display of near-perfect golf that won't be seen again soon, if ever.

Remarkable stuff.

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