Sorenstam distracted, but not off track

June 09, 2006

How long has Annika Sorenstam ruled women's golf? Well, the last time she didn't win the LPGA Championship, the major tournament being held through Sunday at Bulle Rock, her playing partner in yesterday's first round was finishing eighth grade.

That was in 2002. Morgan Pressel is 18 now and a rising star on the women's tour, but she was still awed when she heard she was paired with Sorenstam, the tournament's three-time defending champion.

"She's just such a great player. I tried not to freak out," Pressel said yesterday.

As it happened, Sorenstam made it relatively easy for Pressel to feel at ease. She birdied her first hole but eventually missed far too many shots to sustain any momentum, and she wound up shooting an all-too-human 71, leaving her well behind the leaders.

"That kind of sums up my year so far," Sorenstam, 35, said with a wry smile.

Pressel actually led her for most of the day before faltering late and finishing at 73.

Anything resembling a misstep by Sorenstam was considered almost a freakish occurrence before this year. She has dominated for more than a decade, compiling 67 career victories and nine major titles with her precise shot-making and famously steady nerves. She was so superior to the field at Bulle Rock last year that she talked openly about winning a Grand Slam.

But that didn't happen, and now, Sorenstam will settle for any success. She remains a top player, but with just one tournament victory in 2006 as opposed to five this time a year ago, she is hardly dominant. She actually missed an LPGA cut last month for the first time since 2002.

"She's had such a long and good run that there's going to be a little time to catch your breath, maybe hit a plateau," said her longtime caddie, Terry McNamara.

That's not to discount the possibility of Sorenstam pulling herself together and winning a fourth straight LPGA Championship this weekend. When last seen yesterday, she was headed to the driving range after her round, saying she needed just a tad more consistency.

"I'm pretty happy overall," she said.

Such comments usually bode poorly for the rest of the field, but if yesterday's round is any indication, the notion that Sorenstam isn't quite herself has merit. Playing in mild morning conditions that were perfect for scoring, she hit too many errant drives and missed too many makeable putts. That's become typical of her 2006.

"I can't really pinpoint what it is, other than that I haven't performed as well," she said earlier this week. "I'm making still a lot of birdies, but I'm making a ton of bogeys."

Her play has the markings of a golfer who might be a tad distracted - a suggestion Sorenstam doesn't deny. Obviously looking for new challenges after so much on-course success, she is opening a golf school, working on a fitness DVD and starting to design courses.

"I have a lot of projects on the side that are keeping my interest level up there," she said. "I'm working with a guy to help me make Annika a brand. I'm trying to get into the business world. And it's a lot of fun. I'm a total beginner, but I'm learning a lot."

She also is much happier off the course, having finalized a much-publicized divorce.

"Obviously, that is behind me and now I'm looking forward and there's a lot of positive things in my life, in that sense," she said.

McNamara, her caddie, said, "She is as happy as I've seen her in a while, and if that is the reason [that she isn't playing as well], and we have discussed that, then that's OK; she'll learn to play with all that. If that's really the reason, this is a transition period.

"There's no panic in our camp. We'll have a good year. Will it be her best year? Maybe not. But she still has some great years ahead."

A classic Sorenstam charge seemed imminent yesterday when she made a 12-foot downhill birdie putt on her eighth hole; as her sizable gallery roared, she strode to the next tee with that familiar, laser-eyed gaze that has often buckled the knees of her competitors.

But two holes later, she gave back the stroke on one of Bulle Rock's easiest holes. After booming her drive down the middle of the par-4 fairway, she chipped short of the green, pitched short of the hole and missed a 10-footer for par.

Normally implacable, she was so disgusted that she slammed a club into her bag on the next tee, complained animatedly to McNamara for several minutes and then stewed while waiting to hit her drive.

Playing mortal golf can be annoying when you're used to something better.

"But I'm going to keep playing and try to work through it," Sorenstam said.

Everyone else had better get their winning in now. john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

Facts and figures

What -- LPGA Championship

Where -- Bulle Rock, Havre de Grace

When -- Through Sunday

Purse -- $1.8 million

Tickets -- Available at the gate for $22 today, $25 tomorrow and Sunday; also $65 for season grounds and $90 for season Hall of Fame Parking. Spectators must park at Cal Ripken Stadium (Exit 85 on I-95), Aberdeen.

TV -- The Golf Channel, beginning at 4 p.m. each day.

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