Annika Sorenstam’s toughest challenger might be history.
No one has won the first three legs of the professional Grand Slam, male or female. Ever since Arnold Palmer resurrected the notion in 1960 of sweeping the four majors in one calendar year, only five other players have made it halfway there.
Then again, Sorenstam is unlike any other.
“She is a different breed,” said Pat Bradley, the last woman to win the first two majors of the year. “She is so solid in everything she does. She has no weakness. She does not take anything for granted. She does not say, ‘Who’s going to finish second?’ She treats each week as a separate tournament.”
Rosie Jones was a mere bystander at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in late March, finishing eight shots behind in second place. The competition came from 15-year-old Michelle Wie at the LPGA Championship, where Sorenstam played the par 5s in 3 over par and bogeyed the last two holes – and still won by three shots.
The next stop on this incredible journey is the U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver, at 6,749 yards the longest course in the 60-year history of the championship.
Her most daunting opponent might not be a player, but the pressure of closing in on an audacious goal that Sorenstam stated at the start of the year.
“I know it’s going to be a lot of pressure,” Sorenstam said. “That’s the goal I set, and if I want to achieve my goal, that’s what I will have to accept.”
Defending champion Meg Mallon compared her with Babe Ruth pointing to center field during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs and hitting the next pitch over the fence.
“She called her shot, just like the Babe,” Mallon said. “That would be pretty amazing if she did it.”
That’s not a concession, however.
Mallon beat her last year at Orchards Golf Club in western Massachusetts. Mallon closed with a 6-under 65, the lowest final round in Women’s Open history, to beat Sorenstam by two shots.
Three years ago at Prairie Dunes in Kansas, Sorenstam had a two-shot lead going into the final round and looked unbeatable until Juli Inkster fired a 4-under 66 for a two-shot victory.
To show that Sorenstam indeed is human, she needed a birdie on the par-5 18th hole at Pumpkin Ridge in 2003 to win the Women’s Open, but hit her 4-wood next to a portable toilet, wound up taking bogey and finished one stroke out of a playoff won by unheralded Hilary Lunke.
Sorenstam returns to Colorado for the first time in 10 years, when she claimed her first LPGA Tour victory at the U.S. Women’s Open by overcoming a five-shot deficit and her nerves down the stretch to win at the Broadmoor. She repeated as champion the next year at Pine Needles, winning by six shots.
But she hasn’t won the biggest tournament in women’s golf the last eight years.
“There was nothing else I could have done,” Sorenstam said about her losses to Mallon and Inkster. “Sometimes that just happens. We’ll see what happens this year.”
Her well-rounded game can be traced to some time spent with the men – first at the Colonial two years ago, where she became the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour; then a few friendly practice rounds with Tiger Woods, with whom she shares an agent.
Mallon and Inkster are among the few who have taken on Sorenstam during a final round and defeated her, and it’s that kind of experience that might be required.
Cristie Kerr is the highest-ranked player behind Sorenstam on the LPGA money list, but her victory in Kingsmill was her first with Sorenstam in the field.
Wie should not be overlooked, especially after a whirlwind week. She finished second at the LPGA Championship – the only player to break par all four days – and was co-medalist at a 36-hole qualifier for the U.S. Amateur Public Links, becoming the first female to qualify at a USGA championship for adult males.
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