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Golf world turns it's eyes to Sorenstam

The next stop on the PGA Tour promises one of those rare and provocative scenes in the world of sports, and with it comes many correct questions but few right answers.

Should Annika Sorenstam be playing golf with the men in the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth?

Can she compete?

Will she harm women's golf or help it?

Is a miracle in the offing on the banks of the Trinity River?

The 32-year-old Sorenstam, who has won 43 tournaments as a professional and widely is considered to be the best female player on the planet, stunned the golf world in February when she accepted a sponsor's invitation to play in the venerable Colonial, an invitational tournament won by the likes of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus.

Sorenstam said the timing of the tournament and the venue, the 67-year-old Colonial Country Club, suited her ambitions to compare her skills with the best players in the world. "I am curious to see if I can compete in a PGA Tour event," she said last winter.

The skeptics emerged as swiftly as the winds that sweep through Colonial's towering pecans each spring.

Among their arguments: Sorenstam is only doing it for the attention. She's taking a precious place in the tournament that could go to an aspiring -- and male -- Tour professional. She'll play poorly, look foolish and smear the image of women's golf. She'll make a media mockery of the Colonial. She has her own tour to play on. The PGA Tour is no place for girls.

"The amount of hype that has been created is a distraction, and I think the guys feel like this is more a publicity stunt than anything else," suggested Tina Bradley Mayers, the head professional at the Golf Club at Circle C in Southwest Austin.

Last week, before the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in neighboring Irving, there was more buzz about the Colonial than the tournament about to begin.

'`This is just one of those hot topics right now,'' said David Gossett. ``They're talking about it on the radio. They're talking about it on television. The good thing is, they're talking about golf.''

The topic had quieted until the Wachovia Championship two weeks ago. Runner-up Vijay Singh told Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson that he hoped Sorenstam would miss the 36-hole cut at the Colonial, and that if he were paired with her, he would withdraw.

``Why? Because she doesn't belong out here,'' Singh told Ferguson.

There is relative truth to his statement. No woman has competed in a PGA Tour event in more than a half century. But the PGA Tour bylaws make no distinction based on sex, as the LPGA Tour's do. Strictly speaking, the PGA Tour is for anyone good enough to play on it.

Sorenstam received one of eight sponsor's exemptions for the Colonial, an invitational tournament with a limited field. Partly, at least, Bank of America undoubtedly offered the exemption for guaranteed media attention (which it got immediately), fan interest (which it is getting) and unprecedented television coverage. (Which it will get. Every hole Sorenstam plays on Thursday and Friday will be televised.)

``I think it's entertaining and interesting, and I'm curious to see how she does,'' said Brad Lardon, a former professional at Austin Golf Club now making a go of it on the PGA Tour. But Lardon, like many players on Tour who have yet to earn enough money to secure their exemption for next year, wishes deep down that he would've been granted that spot that Sorenstam got.

``It's not the guys who are making $3 million a year out here'' who object on principle to Sorenstam's exemption, Lardon said. ``Every card member that's not playing in it has a stake.''

Much has been made of the fact that Sorenstam will be competing from the same set of tee markers the men will play at the 7,054-yard course. No special accommodation will be made for Sorenstam, who, on the LPGA Tour, plays courses that are at least 600 yards shorter.

At Colonial, she will play a 611-yard par-5 hole, six par-4 holes longer than 425 yards and a fierce par-3 hole that measures 252 yards.

Sorenstam averages 275.4 yards off the tee on the LPGA Tour. She ranks second in that category. But even the shortest hitters on the PGA Tour hit it that far, and they spin their balls more, which is essential to holding shots on Colonial's firm greens.

Still, shorter hitters often have won the tartan blazer awarded to the winner of the Colonial.

Corey Pavin has won the tournament twice. So has Nick Price, the defending champion. David Frost won in 1997, the year before Tom Watson, now on the Champions Tour, captured the jacket at the dusk of his PGA Tour career. Sergio Garcia won the Colonial two years ago by hitting ground-hugging irons on many tee shots.

``Just let her tee it up,'' said Bob Estes. ``See how she does. Then we'll have that debate.''

The media have indeed stirred the opinion. More than 500 credentials have been issued to reporters covering the tournament this year; that's five times the usual amount. Correspondents from National Geographic and Vogue magazines will be there. So will 98 photographers -- with 98 lenses on Sorenstam.

``It's got a life of its own,'' said Tour veteran Scott Simpson.

At the end of his first round Thursday in the Nelson, Hank Kuehne affirmed what he has been saying all along about Sorenstam in the Colonial: ``I want the best for women's golf.''

Kuehne's sister, Kelli Kuehne, plays on the LPGA Tour. Hank Kuehne has a different stake in Sorenstam's performance.

``I'm just concerned about my family,'' he said.

His sister had driven back from Austin that day to watch her brother play his final five holes. She, too, has been vocal about the issue.

``She's got a lot more than she can fathom riding on her shoulders,'' Kelli Kuehne said. ``I think she has a lot to lose and very little to gain.''

If Sorenstam plays badly, as many predict she will, she will forever be remembered as the woman who wasn't nearly good enough to play with the men. That, Kelli Kuehne said, is no legacy for women's golf. And it might drive down interest in the LPGA Tour, which has struggled to maintain a fan base.

``The LPGA Tour is for the best women players in the world. The PGA Tour is not for women. That's the issue. That's where it begins and ends,'' Kelli Kuehne said.

``Some battles, I think, are uphill.''

Beyond that, a bigger issue is at play. Singh hinted at it, just as Kuehne did.

Is much of the debate simply about mixing the sexes?

``Absolutely,'' said Gossett.

When asked for his opinion on whether Sorenstam should play the Colonial, he smiled slyly. ``I'm on the fence,'' he said, adding quickly: ``Let her tee it up.''

That she will. Much of the world will be watching, waiting, hoping their own personal conclusions will play out with every bounce of the ball.

 

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