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A winning situation that lost

Doug Ferguson Associated Press

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – Women’s golf never had it this good.

The story lines were so compelling going into the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open that it became must-see TV. There was a distinctive buzz among the 30,000 lucky souls scrambling for a view on a sunny day at Cherry Hills.

Annika Sorenstam was going for the third leg of the Grand Slam, and while she was five shots out of the lead, she was on the same course where Arnold Palmer hitched up his pants, drove the first green and charged to the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history 45 years ago.

Just as captivating were the two teenagers still in high school, tied for the lead and trying to become the youngest major champions in golf history – 15-year-old Michelle Wie, already one of the most famous female athletes on the planet; and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel, a ponytailed blonde from south Florida ready to conquer the world.

Then the cameras came on, producing the highest rating for the U.S. Women’s Open in eight years.

And women’s golf has rarely looked this bad.

Not even a finish that ranks among the most dramatic in U.S. Open history – a 30-yard bunker shot holed by Birdie Kim, one of the coolest names in golf – could spare the LPGA Tour from perceptions it has battled for years.

Its new marketing campaign is “These Girls Rock.”

The image from Cherry Hills is that they can’t play worth a lick.

The scoring average the last day was 76.1, some of that undoubtedly brought on by the pressure of the most prestigious event in women’s golf. The U.S. Women’s Open is to the other LPGA majors what the Masters is to the Byron Nelson Championship.

Criticism of women’s golf is nothing new.

Seven years ago at Blackwolf Run, the best anyone could do at the U.S. Women’s Open was 6 over par by a pair of 20-year-olds, LPGA Tour rookie Se Ri Pak and amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. Pak prevailed in a 20-hole playoff.

A year later, Paul Lawrie won a three-man playoff at Carnoustie with the same score.

That led LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw to point out an uneven playing field. When the men shoot 6 over to win a major, that can only mean the course was close to impossible. When the women shoot 6 over, they can’t play.

It works the other way, too.

David Duval shot 59 in the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Classic, considered one of the greatest rounds played. Two years later, Sorenstam shot 59 at Moon Valley, and the assumption was the set up of the course was too easy.

Still, the evidence was stacked against the women Sunday at Cherry Hills.

There was Sorenstam, the most dominant player in golf, trying to emulate Palmer with a driver off the first tee. Instead of hitting the green, she hit a tree and went into a creek to make bogey.

About the time NBC came on the air, Pressel missed a 3-foot putt for the first of three straight bogeys, and the only reason she didn’t tumble down the leaderboard was that everyone around her was sinking faster.

Wie might have been the most shocking sight of all. She missed putts inside 3 feet on three out of four holes. The exception came at No. 9, where she dribbled a ball 20 feet in the rough and made double bogey on her way to an 82.

A ray of hope came from Lorena Ochoa, who was 3 under for her round and on the verge of the largest comeback in Women’s Open history. Then she got to the 18th tee. Overcome by the pressure, her 3-wood dug out a chunk of turf before it reached the ball, and it went into the water.

“I hate to call it choking, but that’s what it is,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said, and it would be hard to argue with him.

It was only fitting that Duval, who lives just beyond the 17th tee at Cherry Hills, was in the gallery on Sunday. He was part of the show the last time women’s golf was seemingly in a no-lose situation.

It was the “Battle at Bighorn” in 2001 when Sorenstam and Tiger Woods played an alternate-shot match against Duval and Karrie Webb – all of them major champions that year. It was televised in prime-time. It would be the largest TV audience to watch the women.

“This is one of the biggest days in LPGA history, if not the biggest day, based on the number of eyeballs that are going to be on our product,” Votaw said before the match began.

About 30 minutes before they teed off, a 30 mph wind roared in over the mountains, and Bighorn was a beast.

Webb hit a 20-foot birdie putt some 60 feet beyond the hole. Sorenstam hit a 25-foot birdie putt that went 30 yards back into the fairway, prompting Woods to joke: “I’ll try to chip this close so you can two-putt.” Neither of them could hit the 18th fairway in regulation or in the playoff.

Never mind that the course was as tough as anything the guys had seen that year.

The women looked bad.

The lasting image of Cherry Hills shouldn’t be putts left short or fairways missed wide, but Birdie’s bunker shot for a birdie, and a brigade of teenagers on the verge of giving women’s golf the attention in deserves.

They’ll get another chance, and soon.

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