2005: Annika’s plans go awry

Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

Of all the golf names in the world, Birdie Kim ranks right up there as one of the silliest I’ve ever heard.

Regardless, after watching Birdie Kim sink an impossible bunker shot to win the U.S. Women’s Open, I have decided to change my name. I am now Birdie Jim.

Birdie Jim came here to Cherry Hills Country Club to watch Annika Sorenstam win the third leg of the Grand Slam. How exciting it would be.

When Annika first got a look at the golf course, perhaps she had a premonition: How dangerous it would be.

The U.S. Women’s Open is without a doubt the toughest of the four majors for Annika. She hasn’t won the event since 1996, and she may never win another.

At Cherry Hills, she shot 296 (12 over par) to finish nine strokes behind Birdie Kim.

Note to Annika: For next year’s U.S. Women’s Open, maybe you should change your name to Birdie Sorenstam (with only seven birdies in 72 holes this year, you need a change).

Annika came here with eight victories in her last 10 LPGA events. She had won five of the last nine major championships. She held the first two major titles of 2005 – the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the McDonald’s LPGA Championship – and was trying to become the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the season’s first three majors.

Although her stroke average for the year was 68.6, she averaged 74.0 at Cherry Hills.

Why did Annika fail? “It was just one of those weeks,” she said. “I didn’t play well. There were too many times when I didn’t feel comfortable with the putter.”

Now the truth: The U.S. Women’s Open employs an anti-Annika setup. It takes away her biggest advantage – driving the golf ball. She is the best driver of the ball in the world, man or woman. Considering distance and accuracy, nobody else can touch her.

U.S. Women’s Open fairways are the narrowest of the year. At Cherry Hills, most were between 28 and 30 yards wide.

Then there is the infamous Open rough. The primary rough at Cherry Hills was 3 inches high. It was wiry and at times inescapable.

To avoid the rough, long-hitting players often used fairway woods or irons off the tee. Annika, the best driver of the golf ball on the planet, hit her driver only three times in the opening round.

Surrendering this element of her dominance was too much. It placed pressure on other parts of her game. Her putting couldn’t stand the heat.

In her hands, the putter was a devil stick. She four-putted the 12th green in the third round. She failed to convert numerous birdie putts inside 15 feet.

Annika opened the championship with a bogey on her first hole, the 414-yard 10th, where she missed a 5-foot putt. She hung on tenaciously for a first-round 71, which was only two behind, but fell six strokes off the pace when she bogeyed the final three holes of the second round for a 75.

She never recovered, although a third-round 73 left her only five shots out of the lead.

She decided on an aggressive strategy for the final round, and predictably it didn’t work. The rough ate her alive.

On the 346-yard first hole, where she had hit 4-iron off the tee in previous rounds, she pulled out driver. “I hit a tree in the creek (and made bogey),” she said.

On the 415-yard second hole, where she had used 4-wood in earlier rounds, she went with driver. “It got stuck in the rough (and led to another bogey),” she said.

“My game plan today was to be a little bit more aggressive, and it totally backfired,” she said after shooting 77. “I am not going to second-guess myself. Normally when I come up with a plan, it works. I am going to leave it at that.”

Through the entire ordeal, she maintained a brave face and spoke calmly and courteously to all who approached her. Anyone who needs a role model for golf should consider this woman. At 34, she has attained an impressive level of civility. She doesn’t pout in public, and she doesn’t offer excuses.

Spectators at Cherry Hills were consistently supportive of Annika. Denver is a marvelous sports town, and the U.S. Golf Association needs to return here soon.

The U.S. Open has been played three times at Cherry Hills, the last in 1978 when it was won by Andy North. Alas, it will never be back again. In the era of space-age golf equipment, the course is too short for the big boys.

The U.S. Women’s Open, though, is a perfect fit.

“I want to say the crowds have been spectacular all week,” Annika said. “They stuck with me through the end. It is just really, really nice. I felt a lot of love from the people here. I am very thankful for that.”

With that, she turned to ride off into the sunset. Next major stop: The Weetabix Women’s British Open, July 28-31 at Royal Birkdale in England.

Except that Annika forgot something she wanted to stress about this U.S. Women’s Open.

“It just shows there is a lot of great talent out there,” she said of the teenagers and other young contenders. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are. They are playing some great golf. They are handling the pressure. They are playing solid down the stretch. That’s the new generation. I think we should welcome them all and say, ‘Hey, that’s good for golf.’ ”

Hey, Annika, you’re good for golf.

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