Sorenstam hungry, happy

Her personal life in order, she takes on young challengers with gusto

March 16, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

Superstition Mountain, Ariz. -- The attention paid to this year's much-celebrated rookie class on the LPGA Tour has left Annika Sorenstam in a position she covets - out of the glare of the spotlight, if only for the moment.

It changed a little Sunday in Mexico, when Sorenstam won her season-opening event for the third straight year. It could change even more this week when she tries to win the Safeway International for the third straight year.

Three-peats - and four-peats - are the norm for the best women's golfer in the world and possibly the best female player of all time. What isn't typical is for Sorenstam to be virtually ignored.

Not that she minds the fact that rookies Morgan Pressel and Ai Miyazato, as well as high school phenom Michelle Wie and last year's top rookie, Paula Creamer, seem to have generated more of a buzz this season than Sorenstam.

"It's a great challenge. There's no doubt about it," Sorenstam said yesterday at the Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. "I don't mind sharing the spotlight a little bit. Maybe I can practice under the radar and play under the radar."

While the 35-year-old Swede is solidly entrenched at the top of the newly implemented world rankings, it's only a matter of time before Sorenstam takes her usual place at the top of the LPGA money list.

It is a position she has held at the end of the past five seasons, seven of the past nine and eight of the 12 years since she joined the tour after playing collegiately at nearby Arizona.

Like her golfing practice buddy, Tiger Woods, Sorenstam is constantly tweaking her game. Though not undertaking a major swing overhaul, as Woods has done a couple of times, she spent the winter widening her stance and straightening her putting stroke.

Why would a player who won 10 events on the tour last year, including a record-tying five straight in one stretch, and added two major championships, need to change anything?

Why would a player who has won 67 LPGA titles and has become a legitimate threat to challenge Kathy Whitworth's all-time record of 88 think there is any room for improvement?

"You always could be better," Sorenstam's longtime coach, Henri Reis, said yesterday. "That's the goal. Annika is that type of person. She always tries to be better and better."

One thing is already apparent about Sorenstam this year: She is much happier than she was a year ago. While her divorce from David Esch after an eight-year marriage became official before last season began, she was still dealing with the emotions of being single again.

Over the winter, she began dating sports agent Mike McGee, the son of longtime pro Jerry McGee.

Because of her personal crisis, Sorenstam learned something about herself last year.

"I just learned that I'm lucky to do something that I enjoy," she said. "I still continue to throw myself into golf. I think my eyes are maybe opened up a little bit around golf more and seeing the opportunities around it. But also I think I have a lot more respect for it. I am happier on the course. I am happier off the course. Obviously that's a good balance to have."

Said Reis: "She has a big motivation and now she's much better prepared for this season. Last year, she was playing golf because she was trying to forget everything. Now, she doesn't need to do that. I think it will be a great year."

What constitutes success for Sorenstam is different from every other player on the tour; maybe every other player in the world aside from Woods. She understands that the measuring stick mostly surrounds her performance in the majors, starting in two weeks at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in which she will be the defending titlist.

Sorenstam didn't bring up the possibility of winning the Grand Slam - she got halfway last year after winning the Nabisco and then the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace before finishing tied for 23rd in the U.S. Women's Open - but she didn't shy away when the subject was broached yesterday.

"I mean that's my goal," she said. " I don't think that's a surprise to anyone. I think what I've got to do is just take one step at a time, one tournament at a time, and trying to prepare as much as I can for the majors. I know how to win them. I've just got to be able to do it in one year."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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