Meet the new rivals: same as the old rivals

Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb find themselves on a collision course by going in opposite directions

Lpga Championship

June 07, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

When the McDonald's LPGA Championship made its inaugural visit to the Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace last year, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb were in divergent phases of their Hall of Fame careers.

Sorenstam, who earlier in the year had tied Nancy Lopez's LPGA record by winning five straight tournaments she entered, was being talked about as the greatest female golfer ever.

Webb, once considered even better than Sorenstam, seemed almost embarrassed to celebrate her inclusion into the LPGA's Hall of Fame by simply showing up for the tournament to complete her 10th season on tour.

Nothing changed that week.

Sorenstam won her second straight major, her third straight LPGA title and would go on to win 10 times last year. Webb would finish tied for 20th and would go winless for the year for the first time since turning pro.

When the McDonald's LPGA Championship returns to Bulle Rock this week, these two former rivals who jockeyed for the No. 1 ranking during a six-year stretch from 1995 through 2000 are in different places again.

Sorenstam, 35, is in the midst of her first noticeable winless drought in seven years. After winning her 67th LPGA event in her season-opener in Mexico, Sorenstam missed a cut for the first time in nearly four years and has failed to close out a couple of other tournaments at which she had a late lead or was in contention going into the final round.

Webb, 32, is in the midst of a rejuvenation, having won her first major in four years at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March and then backing it up with a seven-stroke win last month at the Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg, Va., where Sorenstam had missed the cut.

One of the most competitive, if not quite compelling, rivalries in LPGA history has been renewed as Webb has reemerged as one of the tour's top players and a much more engaging figure than she was when she won 22 times in five years, including seven tournaments in 2000.

"I would never say I took it for granted when I was playing well," Webb said after her recent victory, the most lopsided win on tour this year. "But I took it for granted much more than I do know. I really, really appreciate the good and how quickly the game can turn on you."

Webb, who also has finished second twice this year, cites a couple of reasons for her steady decline after 2000, particularly the past three seasons. Webb bottomed out last year when she finished a career-low 27th on the money list and finished second only once, three strokes behind Sorenstam in the Mexican event.

"The main reason is because I lost a lot of confidence in my game," said Webb. "When I needed to hit good shots or make putts, I just wasn't doing it. Probably one of the reasons why I became No. 1 in the world and maintained that for a couple of years was because I didn't stop and ask why I was doing that."

It might be a process Sorenstam is going through now. Just as the mention of the Grand Slam followed her to Bulle Rock last year, there is the almost unfathomable thought that Sorenstam could be starting the kind of slump her good friend Tiger Woods went through after completing his own version of the slam.

Has anyone mentioned the dreaded "S" word to Sorenstam?"No, not really, and even if they have, I probably didn't hear it," Sorenstam said in a recent interview. "You have to put things in perspective here. I think you have to understand that there are a lot of good players out here and to win a tournament, you really have to play well."

What has happened to Sorenstam after a five-year stretch when she has won 43 events overall, including seven majors, and became the first player since the legendary Mickey Wright to twice win more than 10 events in a year has been as big a surprise as a then unknown Swede was in winning the 1995 U.S. Women's Open.

"I haven't seen anything like this in a while," Cristie Kerr said after playing with Sorenstam and a resurgent Webb in Williamsburg. "Golf goes through cycles. This year, even though she did win in Mexico, it seems like she is struggling more than in other years. I played enough with her to know that something was wrong."

Terry McNamara, who has caddied for Sorenstam since September 1999, said that a stretch like this wasn't totally unexpected.

"She's had such a long and good run, there's going to be a time to catch your breath I guess, hit a little plateau or something," McNamara said last week before the ShopRite LPGA Classic, where Sorenstam tied for second, her fourth top-6 finish in her past five events. "I really feel there's nothing wrong with her."

There are other reasons for Sorenstam's recent struggles. An offseason attempt to widen her stance in order to generate more power and maybe get a little more consistency with the direction of her drives has already been scrapped, and Sorenstam went back to her old stance last month.

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