In the end, though a generous handful of suitors came calling, it was Annika Sorenstam who stepped forward and made the call when – and more specifically, where – she would debut on the PGA Tour.
Her choice? Storied Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, home to the Bank of America Colonial May 22-25, where Sorenstam will become the first female to play in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias competed at the 1945 Los Angeles Open.
Why Colonial? Sorenstam said it’s a golf course she believes she can handle (7,080 yards) and where par means something. The tournament also falls opposite the LPGA Corning Classic, an event she has not played since 1995. After ongoing discussions between Colonial and IMG’s Mark Steinberg, Sorenstam’s manager, Sorenstam was extended an invite Feb. 11, and she quickly accepted.
But make no mistake: Though many attach Sorenstam’s odyssey onto the PGA Tour to implications that the entire reputation of women’s golf will be at stake, the best female player in the game assures that this is a personal journey.
“I know I have the LPGA’s support going there, but I’m going because I want to go,” said Sorenstam, 32, a winner of 42 LPGA events. “This is my test. I’m testing myself. If I were to put all women on my shoulders, it would be a very heavy load.”
Before making her decision, Sorenstam discussed potential venues with Steinberg and former Colonial champion Dave Stockton, who has helped her with her putting. She said she narrowed a list of potential tournaments to 10, then a few: Colonial, Chrysler Classic of Tucson, the B.C. Open and Buick Classic (Westchester) among them. Colonial, played two weeks before the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, fit best.
Already in the works is a practice round with Tiger Woods in Orlando, Fla., where both players live. Woods, who is not expected to play Colonial, said he supports Sorenstam’s invitation but also noted a poor performance could prove detrimental.
“I think it’s great she’s playing, but . . . it will only be great for women’s golf if she plays well,” he said.
Colonial’s field is expected to be roughly 120 players, which means Sorenstam will have to beat about 50 men to make the 36-hole cut, which fell at 3-over 143 a year ago. The tournament’s invite seemingly marked an abrupt turnaround in philosophy; two weeks earlier, tournament chairman Dee Finley said Colonial would not reserve one of its sponsor exemptions for Sorenstam.
“We’re here to provide a place to play for PGA Tour players,” he said.
But he told Golfweek two factors changed that outlook. Finley said initially he was dealing with a hypothetical question about Sorenstam in his field, but when Steinberg called to express an earnest interest, he and others re-evaluated. Also, he said, response from PGA Tour players to Sorenstam competing was “mostly positive.”
It has been speculated that Bank of America, the tournament’s title sponsor, helped turn the tide. And it didn’t hurt that IMG already is partnered with Bank of America in a corporate hospitality program called Hogan’s Alley.
Woods suggested Sorenstam could lessen the amount of pressure by playing in more than one Tour event. As of now, Sorenstam will focus on one, though she didn’t close the door on making other PGA Tour appearances. She’s as curious as anyone to see how she’ll fare. She considers Colonial her “fifth major” of 2003.
“I would not have done this two years ago,” she said. “I’m hitting the ball 20 yards farther and I’ve improved my short game. I feel so much better about my game. . . . I just look at it as the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my career.”