2005: LPGA - Don’t bet against her

Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Annika Sorenstam hadn’t yet dried off from her celebratory swim at the Kraft Nabisco Championship when some began to wonder whether her dominance is good for women’s golf.

Nonsense. How can it possibly be bad?

The LPGA can use all the exposure it can muster. The PGA Tour makes headlines no matter who wins. The LPGA makes headlines only when Sorenstam wins. Even then, the 34-year-old Swede doesn’t receive the recognition she deserves for her consistent domination of the tour.

Her latest feat was a masterful major championship performance that was her fifth consecutive victory, tying Nancy Lopez’s mark set in 1978. (Sorenstam originally was going to play in the Takefuji Classic in Las Vegas April 14-16 but says she may take more time off before pursuing a sixth consecutive title. Her next likely event would be at the Michelob Ultra Open May 5-8.)

“I think it would be better if someone stepped up and really pushed her,” said Rosie Jones, who finished second to Sorenstam by eight shots at Mission Hills. “I think it would be better for her and I think it would be better for our tour if we had several people that did that.”

That may be true but it is wishful thinking. Right now no one can compete with Sorenstam on a regular basis. She’s more fit, more focused and more determined than anyone else in golf – man, woman or alien.

Now that her personal matters have been dealt with, Sorenstam is as happy as she has been in a long time. And the records, those which once seemed untouchable, are within reach.

Consider these mind-boggling numbers:

If Sorenstam were given a two-shot penalty on the first hole each day at the Nabisco, she still would have found herself in a playoff with Jones.

Not only is it Sorenstam’s fifth consecutive victory but it’s her eighth triumph in her last 10 events worldwide.

Sorenstam has played 43 consecutive rounds of par or better dating to June 27, 2004.

Since the start of 2001, Sorenstam has collected 36 titles, more than Patty Sheehan (35), Betsy King (34) and Beth Daniel (33) have in their careers.

“I don’t think anybody in the sports world gives her enough credit for what she has done and what she’s accomplished,” Lopez said. “I think really and truly that she’s better than Tiger Woods.”

Sound silly? Perhaps. But Sorenstam is more dominant than Woods was during his nine-victory 2000 season. Sorenstam and Woods have the same number of major championships (8) and Sorenstam has 17 more career victories than Woods.

“Sometimes, maybe, I take certain things for granted,” Sorenstam said.

Maybe we take certain things for granted. Sorenstam has made the game look so effortless for so long that we expect her to win at will.

This year, her lone goal is to win the Grand Slam – all four major championships. After a 3-for-3 start to the season, we shouldn’t be surprised if she wins more than 10 times and begins to focus on Kathy Whitworth’s 88 career victories mark or Patty Berg’s 15 career major championships. (Sorenstam has 59 and 8, respectively.)

“I’m getting better and better at every part of the game,” she said. “It’s all coming together. I’ve always felt like I was a good ball-striker, I’ve always felt like I was a good putter but it didn’t seem like I could really put them together. Now I’m able to scramble, and that’s what it takes to win tournaments.

“I feel I’m starting to reach my peak, and I want to get there. That’s what keeps me going everyday.”

Said Terry McNamara, Sorenstam’s caddie: “I’ve seen her do a lot of good things but I don’t think she’s ever played better. She’s probably hitting her prime if you think about women’s golf. If she can put up with the media and all the responsibilities, it could be really great from here on.

“It’s going to take a lot but I wouldn’t bet against her.”

An admiring Lopez can’t help but compare their two streaks. When Lopez won her fifth consecutive tournament, she was a rookie and seemingly had no pressure on her.

She took women’s golf to new heights when she landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her exposure went from nonexistent to overwhelming practically overnight. Two weeks after the SI cover treatment, the stress took its toll. Lopez failed to win her sixth consecutive event at the Lady Keystone Open in Hershey, Pa.

“I had a fried brain,” Lopez said. “I was so tired. I would step over putts and would be thinking about the Quarter Pounder with cheese at McDonald’s. I just couldn’t concentrate anymore. It was just too much.”

None of that is likely to play a part in Sorenstam’s never-ending quest to rewrite the LPGA record book.

She’s media savvy and knows how to handle the pressure. And her confidence is at an all-time high, as evidenced by an 11th-hour club switch before the opening round of the Kraft Nabisco. (She played the new Callaway Tour-X irons in her first two events, then switched back to her old X-14s last week.)

Not that it matters. Sorenstam could have won this tournament with only five clubs and a gutta percha ball.

After the LPGA’s first three events, there were a number of players who looked as if they might be capable of challenging Sorenstam – Jennifer Rosales, Cristie Kerr, Karrie Webb and Lorena Ochoa come to mind. However, instead of the gap narrowing at the top, it has become larger than ever. Either way suits Sorenstam just fine.

When asked if she wishes that someone would step up and challenge her on a consistent basis, Sorenstam said, “No, what’s wrong with this?”

Then, with a smile the size of Sweden, she slyly said, “I’d welcome it.”

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