2006: Patriot Act - women's open

Newport, R.I.

Turns out Annika Sorenstam needed to become an American citizen to win another U.S. Women’s Open. Nineteen days after the Swede was sworn in at a ceremony in her adopted hometown of Orlando, Fla., Sorenstam clamped down the national title that had eluded her for 10 years.

Sorenstam’s third, and perhaps most satisfying, Open victory didn’t come easy. It took the world’s No. 1 player five days, 90 holes and 354 major blows to end her decadelong Open drought.

Fittingly, on the eve of Independence Day, Sorenstam got off to an explosive start at Newport Country Club in the 18-hole Monday playoff against Pat Hurst, birdieing two of the first three holes. By the time the pair of thirtysomethings made the turn, Hurst trailed by five.

“I have never grinded so much in my life,” said Sorenstam, who beat Hurst in a playoff for the third time. “It’s been a long wait, a long road, but along the way I’ve learned a lot.”

Last year the buzz at Cherry Hills centered around the SorenSlam, her grand attempt to sweep all four majors. This year, it was the SorenSlump that was analyzed from all angles. How far the mighty can tumble in the span of a year.

She’d gone four majors without a win and hadn’t had victory of any kind in eight starts. Critics called it a slump. Sorenstam’s longtime mental guru Pia Nilsson called it a plateau. Point is, Sorenstam hadn’t gone this long without a victory since 2001, when she endured a 10-tournament drought.

“All masteries go like this,” said Nilsson, waving her hand up and down. “House values, stock market, companies, golf performance. The main point is to realize that nothing’s wrong.”

Peaks inevitably follow valleys and Sorenstam couldn’t have risen higher on a windless, sun-splashed New England day. Sorenstam missed only one green on the back side en route to a rock-steady 1-under 70 in the playoff. Hurst got off to a sluggish start by bogeying the par-5 first and never really threatened, trailing by as many as six on the closing nine. Her lone birdie of the day came on the 18th, where she drained a 60-foot putt to shoot 74. An exasperated Hurst threw her hands in the air and gave the crowd a warm “finally” smile.

“I couldn’t get the ball to the hole, and that was the frustrating thing for me because I’m generally a pretty aggressive putter,” Hurst said. “You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to have (at winning the Open), so you want to get it done the first time.”

Hurst was the unlikely obstacle in Sorenstam’s path. Coming into the championship Hurst ranked 100th on tour in putting. For the week, however, the 37-year-old mother of two tied Stacy Prammanasudh atop the putts per round category with an average of 27.5. While she was next to last in fairways hit among those who made the cut, Hurst’s upright swing and sheer physical strength enabled her to work her way out of Newport’s gnarly Open rough.

Sorenstam has said she never expected to win one tournament on tour, let alone 68. Looking at Hurst’s amateur career, however, it seemed logical she’d turn into a world-beater. The Californian won the U.S. Girls’ Junior, U.S. Women’s Amateur and NCAA individual championship before leaving San Jose State. But while playing on the West Coast mini-tours, Hurst’s game took a nasty turn in the early ’90s, causing her to walk away from golf completely for one year.

“I think I was playing for everybody else,” Hurst said. “When you hit a bad shot, you just want to break the golf club. It’s not fun.”

When the competitive itch returned, Hurst went to LPGA Q-School in fall 1994 and emerged one year later as the tour’s Rookie of the Year. Still, in the 11 years since, Hurst hasn’t exactly lived up to her vast potential, winning only four times, including one major (the 1998 Kraft Nabisco).

Heading into the playoff, it seemed to be advantage Annika from the start. Sorenstam, the player who raised the standard on tour fitness levels, stood in stark contrast to Hurst. Shirt untucked, RC Cola in hand, Hurst’s workout routine likely consists solely of running around the house after her two young children. The adrenaline that carried Hurst through Sunday’s 36-hole marathon never showed up for the playoff. Heading up the 18th fairway Monday, a humbled Hurst asked Annika for an autographed ball.

“Of course I’m going to give her one,” said Sorenstam. “But I said, ‘You can ask for anything any time. You don’t have to wait until the 18th hole of the U.S. Open.’ ”

It seemed fitting that a veteran taste victory at storied Newport, where old money is worth more than new. American aristocracy – Theodore Havemeyer, John Jacob Astor and a trio of Vanderbilts – helped found the club in 1894. The first hole (No. 10 for the Open) is believed to be the first green in the U.S.

One look at Newport’s stately multimillion-dollar clubhouse is all that’s required to grasp the magnitude of this place. It’s where the inaugural U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open were held one day apart in 1895. It’s where Tiger Woods won his second Amateur title 100 years later.

Players aimed down the 10th hole (the Open’s No. 1) at the house on Hammersmith Farm. Many in the field were too young to recognize their target as the Kennedy’s “Summer White House,” where John John and Caroline Kennedy often rode a pony named Macaroni.

Traditions die hard at Newport, where the membership never exceeds 240 and the kitchen serves nothing but cold sandwiches and hot soup. No porterhouse steak, not even a hamburger.

“It’s a golf club,” said one member while watching the final round unfold. “Period.”

Such a purist mindset fit well with the distinctly British flair of this year’s championship.

Unfortunately for Newport, Mother Nature didn’t allow the course to tout its links-style design. In the six weeks leading to the event, the course received 13 inches of rain, 3 1/2 over the weekend before the tournament. The local fire department pumped more than 3 million gallons of water out of bunkers and low-lying areas prior to play.

Players got friendly with their 3-woods and settled in for some high-class mud slinging.

Once the rain ended, Thursday’s start was delayed by a nagging fog. By 3 p.m. officials decided to call it a day and resume Friday with regularly scheduled tee times. Sorenstam, who had the good fortune of an afternoon tee time on Day 1, didn’t even make it out to Newport. She spent the afternoon at nearby Carnegie Abbey working with swing instructor Henri Reis.

The pair hadn’t worked together in person since late April and it didn’t take long for Reis to pinpoint Sorenstam’s sore spot.

“We found out Monday her grip was little weak,” said Reis, who previously had tried to work out the kinks via phone. “I would say this is more of the old Annika, how she’s focused on the shots instead of thinking about the swing so much.”

Reis says the grip change puts Sorenstam’s downswing back on plane and allows her to have more control in the impact area. It was an adjustment that immediately put a swagger back in Sorenstam’s step.

Having the luxury of sleeping in both Thursday and Friday, Sorenstam opened the championship with a 2-under 69. It marked Sorenstam’s lowest opening score at the Open since she won as a rookie at The Broadmoor in 1995 (67).

Sorenstam then headed out on a brilliant Saturday morning before the winds picked up and shot even-par 71. More importantly, she got off the course and in bed hours before her closest pursuers.

“I'm sure she’s home just getting out of the covers from a nice, two-hour nap,” said Juli Inkster, who shot 1-under 70 in the afternoon to trail Sorenstam and Hurst by three.

Michelle Wie, Park and Shi Hyun Ahn trailed the leaders by two heading into Sunday’s doubleheader.

“It’s going to be a fun ride, playing 36 holes in one day. I’m not going to take it too seriously,” said Wie.

When Wie and her entourage rolled out of the media center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, she had less than 12 hours to return to the course for her 8:09 tee time.

The quick turnaround coupled with Sunday’s double dip seemed to give youth and fitness a hearty nod. When Hurst was asked what advantages she brought to the table Sunday, she gave the painfully obvious answer:

“Mental would definitely be up there for me. Obviously fitness isn’t . . . ”

The third round kicked off at 6:30 a.m. but the painstaking hard work was forgotten far quicker than it was played. When all the scores were in, Sorenstam was still atop the leaderboard at even-par along with Wie and the long-hitting Brittany Lincicome. Hurst stumbled to a 4-over 75 to fall two shots back.

Players had about 30 minutes to grab a snack, slip on their Sunday best, roll a few putts and head back to the first tee.

A gaggle of big names clustered the leaderboard throughout the day: Pak, Inkster, Hurst, Sorenstam, Wie. Sorenstam started the final round with a pair of birdies, but when she knocked her ball into a hazard on No. 7 and proceeded to finish double bogey-bogey-bogey on the outward nine, things got eerily quiet as gray skies rolled over Newport.

Sorenstam, however, rebounded with moments of back-nine brilliance, birdieing Nos. 15 and 16 to take a one-shot lead over Hurst with two to play.

Inkster’s chances of becoming the oldest major champion in women’s golf at 46 faded away with a three-putt bogey on No. 16. Wie’s bid to become the event’s youngest winner came up short after she failed to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the 13th.

“I made putts when I needed to, and I hit the fairway when I needed to,” said Wie, who parred the remaining five holes to tie for third. “But obviously there were a couple of shots I wish I could take back.”

Wie’s spotty putting was to blame in recent showings, but she holed enough testy par putts during the week to at least temporarily silence her critics. Her closing 2-over 73 was a far cry from last year’s Open, where Wie also shared the lead heading into the final round but ballooned to an 82.

While Wie has now finished in the top 5 in her last four major championships, she has yet to win a professional title. It’s an omission that tends to overshadow any close calls.

“Winning a trophy in a junior tournament, she could do it,” said Wie’s father, B.J. “But we chose this path.”

Hurst, a champion of all levels of competition, got a little reprieve when Sorenstam bogeyed the par-3 17th from behind the green. After nearly driving the ball in a creek down the right side of No. 18, Hurst’s approach came up 40 paces from the pin. Having chipped in three times during the week, a confident Hurst nestled her third shot to 4 feet.

Sorenstam thought she’d closed the door but her 22-foot birdie putt caught the right edge of the hole. Her jaw dropped and hands clasped the top of her head when the ball stayed slid past. Hurst calmly stroked in her par putt and the pair set a date for 9 a.m. Monday, the third consecutive LPGA majors to require extra holes.

“I’d die for this,” said Hurst. “This is what we live for.”

Crouching off to the side of the 18th green Sunday, the Open trophy sitting in the grass 20 feet away, Hurst’s husband, Jeff Heitt and their two children sat watching the drama of the 72nd hole unfold. Heitt informed their 7-year-old son Jackson that you never root for someone to do poorly. Always root for them to do good.

Eighteen hours later in their encore performance, Hurst trailed along behind Sorenstam walking up the 18th fairway. Sorenstam, leading by five shots, stopped and turned around, asking Hurst to join her for the last few steps.

It was a classy gesture by Sorenstam. After 10 years, she didn’t mind waiting a few extra moments for those last few steps.

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