2001: Small, but significant, strides

When you begin a new season perched at No. 2 in the rankings, there is not a great deal of room for movement – at least not in terms of upward mobility.

Fortunately for golf fans, Annika Sorenstam doesn’t see things the way most of us do.

Sorenstam moved only one spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index in 2001, but it was a move in the right direction, as her eight-victory season propeled her past Karrie Webb and to the top of the Golfweek/Sagarin index. (Se Ri Pak, who won five times, also moved ahead of Webb, improving from No. 8 to No. 2).

For Sorenstam, improvement arrived in many different areas of her game. Always a brilliant iron player, she once again led the LPGA in greens in regulation, improving from 74.9 percent a year ago to 79.7 percent in 2001. Helping that improved GIR figure was the fact Sorenstam added almost 9 yards to her average drive (from 243.8 yards to 252.3), partly attributable to an increased workout regimen. Her putting average appears very similar to what it was a year ago (from 30.41 putts per round to 30.38), but after spending so many extra hours on the practice green last winter, Sorenstam felt as if she was a more effective putter in 2001.

And sometimes that little mental edge is all it takes.

“You know, my swing kind of left me for a few weeks,” Sorenstam said of a brief mid-season lull, “but then my short game kept me up. This year, my short game has helped me out tremendously. I mean, this is my best putting year. This is my best chipping year ever.”

Sorenstam wasn’t the only Swedish player making a positive move in the index. Among the LPGA’s top 30 players, Maria Hjorth made the biggest single-season leap, moving from No. 137 to 25. The long-hitting Hjorth (second on tour with an average drive of 263.6) made a change to swing more upright and keep her hands from getting overactive, and her driving accuracy improved from 61.5 percent to 65.3 percent. The improvement showed in her results: In one stretch of four tournaments, she was runner-up three times and finished third at the McDonald’s LPGA. In all, Hjorth had nine top-10 performances and finished fifth on the money list ($848,195).

“I’m getting the same distance but not as much sidespin,” Hjorth said. “I don’t spray the ball as much, and it’s much easier to control my tee shots. I was very pleased with the year. The only thing I didn’t get was a victory, which would have really topped it off.”

Mhairi McKay, Marisa Baena and Jill McGill also are players to watch in 2002. McKay improved 89 spots in the rankings to 27th; Baena moved 77 spots to 42nd; and McGill, a former U.S. Amateur champion, improved from No. 51 to 30.

McKay and Baena credit changes in their long games with their improved play. McKay tended to lift the club in her backswing, and worked diligently to keep the club lower in her takeaway. She also switched to Penley shafts in her driver and 3-wood that are a little firmer than the ones she had been using. Her driving accuracy improved from 66.5 percent a year ago to 70.2 percent this season, and in turn she moved from 72nd in greens in regulation to ninth.

“You start giving yourself more birdie opportunities, and it all correlates back to the driver,” she said. “I’ve even started watching the stats. It’s exciting to see your name when you move into the top 10, and I’ve been watching that one to see whether or not I stay in.”

Baena began working with Arizona instructor Mike LaBauve to try to tame a big hook that used to get her into trouble. “The club face was shut at the top of my backswing, and we tried to get it more square,” said Baena, who improved her driving accuracy from 58.1 percent (186th) to 63.8 percent (T-151). “Even when I don’t hit the fairways now, my misses are a lot better, and that has boosted my confidence.”

McGill credits her rise to a better comfort level in shooting low scores. When she started to go low in a round, she had confidence to keep going lower. After one top 10 in 2000, she had six this season.

“You start shooting 63s (as she did at the Michelob Light Classic) and 64s (Canadian Women’s Open), and you can finish in the top 10 out here,” McGill said. “I was really able to take it low, and mentally, you start to get comfortable with it.”

McGill said her focus in the upcoming season will be on getting more accurate with her short irons from 130 yards and in. In golf, there is always room to improve. In 2001, even the top women’s player in the game proved that axiom to be true.

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