2004: Perspective - Best of the best still not enough

South Hadley, Mass.

So you play one of the greatest rounds of your life, and it just happens to be Sunday at the U.S. Women’s Open. Wow, talk about great timing. Cha-ching. On a difficult course, competitors are struggling to make pars and are content to make bogeys, but as the heat of a hot July 4 afternoon wears on, as the thermometer rises past 92, you take your game deeper and deeper into the red.

That pretty much was Annika Sorenstam’s final day at The Orchards. Starting three shots off the lead, she fired 4-under 67. Great stuff. Facing the gauntlet that is 16 through 18 at this quaint and timeless 1922 Donald Ross layout, she went par-birdie-birdie.

Oh, there is just one hitch: On the day you decide to play one of the great rounds of your life, so does somebody else. How does that happen? Meg Mallon goes two better, shooting 65. Sixty-five! At the U.S. Women’s Open. On Sunday, no less. And to add to matters, this isn’t the first time you’ve watched this screenplay. Two years ago in Kansas, at venerable Prairie Dunes, you have the Sunday lead and shoot 70, yet have to swallow hard, clear the throat and congratulate Mallon’s good buddy Juli Inkster, who did it just a little better. Isn’t that usually what you always do to others?

Some would call that buzzard’s luck. Some might use four-letter words to describe it. Hey, Annika Sorenstam does. She calls it golf.

“You have to look at the whole picture,” she said. “I did what I could do. I hit the ball as good as I can. I gave every effort I had. I was grinding to the end. I was patient. I didn’t throw away a shot. I never got impatient. I never got stupid. I was smart out there. Like I said, I got outplayed. It’s not a fun feeling by any means. But that’s what makes you work harder and remember the good times when you do win . . . I don’t know how many of you thought there would be a 65 in the last few groups, but Meg proved us all wrong today.”

Losses come in all shapes and sizes (see Norman, Greg). Opponents chipping in, sinking bunker shots, holing 7-irons from the fairway. And just as tournaments are won, they are lost. There are the mini-catastrophes we like to overembellish as tragedies. Best I remember, even the day Jean Van de Velde waded into the burn at Carnoustie en route to his fateful British Open finish, nobody died.

Sorenstam was gracious in defeat, saluting Mallon, but clearly she was stunned. It’s one thing to play below standard and win, which Sorenstam has managed to do in her career. It’s another to play great and lose. She appeared numb, and wore an incredulous stare.

As in, how did this happen to me?

That’s three up, three down for Sorenstam the last three years at the Open. She was run down by Inkster at Prairie Dunes, then handed one away at Pumpkin Ridge last summer when one errant 4-wood at the 72nd hole turned an easy par-5 hole she’d birdie 8 out of 10 times into a bogey-6 and a ticket out of town. She still thinks about that one. Often.

And now this. Asked if she might have done more on Sunday, she shot back, “I can’t play much better. I didn’t really miss a green today. It’s hard to hit more than 18 greens. . . .”

She had arrived at The Orchards determined to not get in her own way. Funny to hear the No. 1 player in the world adopting such a game plan, but that’s where she’s at when it comes to the Open. Nine years ago, when Mallon squandered a Sunday lead at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, it was Sorenstam, an unknown from Sweden, who pounced, winning her first LPGA event. (“I kickstarted Annika’s career,” joked Mallon.) A year later, Sorenstam was totally dominant at Pine Needles in North Carolina, winning by six. The U.S. Women’s Open was going to be little more than her summer annuity.

“At the time,” said Sorenstam, “I thought maybe my game was great for U.S. Opens. But since then I haven’t really done it again.”

That’s eight years and counting. It’s a big void when you’re head and shoulders above anyone else in the game, and the U.S. Women’s Open is the event you want to win more than any other. Part of the Sorenstam’s SOMOW (Stay Out of My Own Way) Plan was to treat last week’s Open as if it were a regular LPGA stop. That’s fine in theory, but hard to pull off. After all, when Sorenstam gave up tennis for golf as a youngster in Sweden and used to putt on the practice green late into the evening, she wasn’t pretending to be putting for the make-believe championship at the Kellogg-Keebler Classic.

And so the biggest event of all has eluded her grasp once again. Even though she has been able to completely turn around her performances in the majors – going from 0-for-15 in 1997-2000 to 5-for-15 since, with 11 top 5s – she has yet to solve the riddle of the Open since walking away with the trophy in 1996. There was no crucial Sunday mistake that will force her to stare at the ceiling at 4 a.m., as Phil Mickelson might in reliving his 17th hole mishap at Shinnecock. But when she left the grounds at The Orchards, it was clear she was stung, her invincibility nicked.

“It’s hard, but I’m going to tell you that I felt proud of what I did this week,” Sorenstam said as she made her way to the parking lot. “I couldn’t have done it any better. I did exactly what I wanted. I played good golf. I thought mentally I was strong. I didn’t get in my own way at all – on the contrary, I thought I handled myself exactly the way I wanted. It feels hard not to win, obviously, but I did feel that somebody outplayed me. I can deal with that. It would be more frustrating if I was in my own way.”

A runner-up medal hung from her neck. Nice, sure. But it’s not a collection she wants to grow.

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