2005: Sunday stroll

Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Those waiting for the wheels to fall off might as well stop rubbernecking. Annika Sorenstam’s trying times apparently have come and gone when no one was looking.

The soon-to-be-divorced Sorenstam was all smiles at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she kicked her game into a gear unfamiliar to the rest of the Mission Hills field. Sorenstam played a bogey-free weekend at the year’s first major and won by eight strokes March 27. In the process, she won the fifth consecutive LPGA tournament in which she was entered, tying a record set by Nancy Lopez in 1978.

“I think last year was a lot harder than it is right now,” Sorenstam said. “Now I feel happier than I have in a long time, so I know what I’ve got to do.”

A synchronized victory dive (with sister Charlotta) into the lake off the 18th green Sunday sat high atop her checklist at the start of 2005. Talk of Sorenstam completing a seasonlong sweep echoed throughout the Coachella Valley as she continued to build steam. The game’s most dominating player, however, insists she still fashions her season around the four majors – unafraid to tout the Soren-Slam.

Only Sorenstam’s inner circle could possibly tell that something wasn’t right inside the ropes last year. Everyone else was left to marvel at a .500 winning percentage and 10 titles worldwide.

“She had a tough time, I know that,” said Tom Sorenstam, Annika’s father. “They (Sorenstam and husband David Esch) made a decision, and you can see relief.”

Knowing that Sorenstam now can focus exclusively on her game helps explain her sizzling 3-for-3 start. A physically, mentally and emotionally stronger Sorenstam staged comeback victories in her first two starts – Mexico’s inaugural MasterCard Classic and the Safeway International.

With the odds invariably stacked in Sorenstam’s favor coming into the Kraft, an injured Grace Park only added to the advantage. Park, the defending champion, barely made it through a required pro-am round Wednesday because of back pain, then pieced together a gutsy 73 in Round 1.

Rosie Jones, who was Sorenstam’s closest pursuer, began her major swan song with a 3-under 69 to join Mi Hyun Kim atop the leaderboard on Day 1. Jones, 44, widely considered the best player never to win a major, says she’s calling it quits after this season.

“I felt like last year that I played a lot of mediocre golf,” Jones said. “I was coming off of surgery and felt like I wanted to give this year a little better chance at playing well before I said goodbye.”

With an unusual amount of rainfall resulting in thicker rough guarding the already narrow fairways at Mission Hills, the premium on accuracy played right into Jones’ game. It didn’t take long for Sorenstam to tame the “moody” greens and join Jones in the top slot, however, moving into a tie midway through the tournament after rounds of 70-69.

But before the veterans nestled into their lead, a number of junior players were creating a buzz of their own. Early Friday morning, 16-year-old Morgan Pressel found herself leading a major for the second time in her brief career. A two-time U.S. Women’s Open qualifier, Pressel notched four birdies in the first six holes of Round 2 before running into trouble on the back side and shooting 73. Pressel, along with Michelle Wie, 15, and Julieta Granada, 18, headed into the weekend among the top 25.

Ideal scoring conditions on Day 3 allowed Sorenstam to take charge. She opened a five-stroke lead after shooting 6-under 66, prompting her to say it’s “as good . . . as I’ve played on a consistent level for a long time.”

Hardly the words Jones wanted to hear heading into Sunday, especially considering the fact that prior to the Kraft, Sorenstam had won 38 of 58 times (65.52 percent) she’d held the final-round lead.

The only fireworks on Saturday came via comments from a persistent Pressel, who after an even-par 72 found herself tied for fifth place. The Kraft is the first LPGA tournament to extend Pressel (Golfweek’s top-ranked amateur) and Granada (Golfweek’s top junior) a sponsor exemption. Pressel also has accepted an exemption into the Michelob Ultra Open in early May, but only because Wie turned it down.

“She’s been given everything and it’s left the rest of us with basically close to nothing,” Pressel said about Wie, who has played in 20 LPGA events. “Everyone is like, ‘She’s great, she’s great,’ but she’s the only one who gets to play. If people saw how the rest of us juniors could play, they may think a little differently.”

Alas, neither the junior set nor anyone else caused Sorenstam much concern. She never faltered in her quest for a record-tying third Kraft title, shooting 68 to finish 15 under. Her family and friends rushed to the 18th green and doused her with champagne before taking the celebratory dive into Champions Lake. Sorenstam’s mother, Gunilla, also took a dip, and caddie Terry McNamara entertained the crowd with a cannonball off the bridge.

Cristie Kerr birdied the final hole to move into a tie for third with Laura Diaz, and Park and Kim finished tied for fifth.

Although Wie was outside the top 10 for the first time in three years at the Nabisco, she still topped the other amateurs in the field with a closing 71 to tie for 14th. Pressel (75) and Granada (78) posted their worst rounds of the week and finished tied for 19th and tied for 30th, respectively.

“I think I took it for granted that I’m going to play good here, and this is a big wake-up call,” said Wie, who struggled off the tee. “I just really grinded it out there.”

After battling through three painful rounds, Park received a little relief by shooting a final-round 67 to vault into the top 5. Park boarded a plane bound for Korea Sunday night, hoping that an MRI would shed some light on her perpetual backaches.

Sorenstam, on the other hand, has never felt better. She has won seven of her past nine LPGA events to reach 59 total victories for her career. Her eighth major title moves her into a tie for fifth on the career list with fellow Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls. At the Kraft Nabisco, Sorenstam hit more than 80 percent of greens in regulation and outdrove her playing partners by as much as 50 yards. In the last five events, she’s a combined 68 under par.

Since the LPGA started in 1950, 10 players have earned more than $1 million in a season. Sorenstam has pocketed $1.03 million in her last five events.

“It only shows that she’s that much better than the rest of us,” Park said.

More bad news for Sorenstam’s foes: Her longtime swing coach, Henri Reis, says Sorenstam has realized about 85 percent of her potential.

Everything in the California desert seemed to go Sorenstam’s way last week. Even when driving her car, she said, she hit all the green lights and heard good tunes on the radio, then she welcomed a host of favorable bounces on the course. It all added up to a relaxing Sunday drive.

And like Sorenstam says, “Why should it end?”

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