2002: Tour events jockey for Sorenstam

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Suzy Whaley may not be the only woman to play in a PGA Tour event in 2003. The world’s top-ranked female player, Annika Sorenstam, has expressed interest in sampling a PGA Tour stop, too. And several tournament directors appear eager and willing to give her the opportunity.

One day after making her desire known at a Jan. 22 national media gathering in Orlando, Fla., Sorenstam was offered a sponsor exemption to play the B.C. Open (July 17-20) in Endicott, N.Y. Tournament directors from the Chrysler Classic of Tucson, Buick Classic, Greater Milwaukee Open, Bell Canadian Open, 84 Lumber Classic and Chrysler Classic of Greensboro (N.C.) also have expressed some level of interest in the possibility of inviting Sorenstam to play. More may follow.

“A tournament like ours could certainly use that (the publicity Sorenstam would bring), and I think she’d have a real good shot at playing on the weekend,” said Chrysler Classic of Greensboro tournament director Mark Brazil. “We’d roll out the red carpet for her.”

The B.C. Open will be played opposite the men’s British Open and one week before the Greater Hartford Open, where Whaley will compete after earning her spot in a Connecticut PGA section event last fall. Whaley competed from shorter tees in the sectional, but will play from the back tees during the GHO, as would Sorenstam if she were to play.

Sorenstam’s agent, IMG’s Mark Steinberg, said Sorenstam first brought up the possibility during her remarkable 2002 season, when she won 11 LPGA events and more than $2.8 million. Now, it seems more a question of when, not if.

“If I got an invite, I would say, ‘Yes,’ in a heartbeat,” Sorenstam said at an appearance for Callaway Golf at Orlando’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. “It’s a great challenge. It’s not something I want to do regularly. But it would be a great learning experience.”

Sorenstam said she did not wish to upstage Whaley.

“Now you’ve got Suzy Whaley, and that’s such a big deal,” she said. “I don’t think the timing is right. But I’m playing so well, I don’t want to wait too long.”

Since her remarks, as Steinberg predicted, PGA Tour tournament directors have been battling to get first dibs on the Swedish superstar. But it likely will be a while before Sorenstam decides which – if any – event she will play.

On Jan. 26, Steinberg said it was unlikely a decision on the B.C. Open invitation would be made anytime soon. And Sorenstam, playing at the LPGA Skins game later that day, said she knew nothing about the offer, which was made by B.C. Open tournament director Mike Norman to Steinberg on Jan. 23 at the PGA Show.

If she plays, Sorenstam and Steinberg said the timing and venue have to be right for her. In other words, she’d like to compete on a shorter layout with tight fairways and thick rough where distance off the tee wouldn’t be so important, and during a week when she’s not defending a title (she has 13 worldwide defenses this year) or playing an LPGA major.

Reactions to Sorenstam’s quest have been mixed. Some said she’d be stealing a spot from a more deserving competitor. Others are intrigued to see how she’d do.

“Well, the PGA Tour has always said it’s about having the best players in the world compete,” said Phil Mickelson, “and we have never differentiated male or female.”

Added fellow Tour player Ian Leggatt: “They (women) don’t intervene in professional tennis or any other sport. I don’t know why all of a sudden there’s this special interest in golf.”

For Sorenstam, there would be much more pressure to show she can compete alongside male counterparts.

“I have no doubt Annika could make the cut in a PGA Tour event,” said fellow LPGA player Laura Davies. “Knowing her, she wouldn’t be satisfied with making the cut, she would want to win it, too.”

But others – such as Tour veteran Jesper Parnevik, a fellow Swede – aren’t so sure.

“I would be impressed if she made one cut all year on the PGA Tour,” he said on PGATour.com. “I know she likes challenges, but I know it’s going to be tougher out here than she thinks.”

– Staff and wire reports

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