Sorenstam sets herself up for major challenge
Just because the LPGA Tour has been in hibernation for nearly 100 days doesn't mean Annika Sorenstam needs to rub the sleep out of her eyes and ease into the new season.
Two weeks ago, Sorenstam ventured Down Under and shot 65-65 on the weekend to win the Australian Ladies Masters for the second straight year.
More proof that her game is sharp came Sunday.
Sorenstam was invited to play Augusta National, and one person in attendance said she has never hit the ball better.
The greens had been double-cut that morning.
Gusts were up to 20 mph.
A half-dozen pins were in their traditional location for Sunday at the Masters.
Sorenstam played the tournament tees, which measure 7,290 yards, and posted a tidy 1-over 73.
Her only bogeys were at No. 9 and the par-3 12th, where she hit 7-iron just over the green and missed a 5-footer. Playing the 570-yard eighth hole into the wind, she hit driver, 5-iron and sand wedge to 8 feet for her only birdie.
And on the 465-yard, uphill 18th, with a strong left-to-right wind that helped slightly on the approach shot, Sorenstam hit driver and 5-iron to the front of the green and took two putts for par.
Sorenstam plans to return to Augusta National in April, but only to receive the Golf Writers Association of America award as LPGA player of the year.
Unlike 14-year-old Michelle Wie, she is not dreaming of how she can qualify for the Masters.
Sorenstam doesn't even plan to play a regular PGA Tour event, like the Colonial.
Instead, she is preparing for something really grand.
The LPGA Tour season gets under way this week in Tucson, Ariz., although Sorenstam will wait another week before she makes her '04 debut in Phoenix at the Safeway International.
While the Phoenix field is one of the strongest of the year, even that is just a warmup act.
Her year essentially starts at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the year, the first step toward a Grand Slam.
When it comes to goals, that's all Sorenstam has left.
``Everything is focused on the majors,'' she said. ``Winning all four in one season is something that has never been done before. But I definitely think it's possible.''
After last year, it's not prudent to bet against her.
Most people thought Sorenstam would flop at the Colonial, where she became the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour. Instead, she thrived under the enormous pressure, putted for birdie on every hole and shot a respectable 1-over 71. She followed that with a 74 and missed the cut by four shots.
Most people figured she would get shut out at the Skins Game, but she had a chance to win and eventually wound up second behind Fred Couples, ahead of Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara.
Sorenstam has reason to believe the Grand Slam is possible.
She was only two strokes (Nabisco) and one swing (U.S. Women's Open) away from winning all four last year. Sorenstam had to settle for the LPGA Championship and the Women's British Open for the career Grand Slam.
Pat Bradley was the only other woman to come close to the Grand Slam, winning three majors in 1986. She tied for fifth, three strokes out of the playoff, at the U.S. Women's Open.
There are other stories to watch on the LPGA Tour this year.
Se Ri Pak has emerged as the second-best player in women's golf. A victory at Nabisco would give the 26-year-old South Korean the career Grand Slam and enough points for the Hall of Fame.
Laura Davies, coming off her 66th victory worldwide at the Australian Women's Open, can also take care of the career slam and the Hall of Fame by winning at Nabisco.
The rookie class includes a player not even old enough to vote. Aree Song, 17, received special permission to compete at Q-school, where she finished fifth. Song made the cut in all six majors she played as an amateur, and finished fifth at the Women's Open last year while paired with Sorenstam.
And then there's Wie, the ninth-grader in Honolulu who shot a 68 in January at the Sony Open, the lowest score ever by a female competing against men. She'll play at least six LPGA events, including the Nabisco.
But the most compelling part of the season is built around one player and one tournament.
Sorenstam set herself up for this pressure when she said at the end of last year, ``It's the four majors that I'm going for next year. Those goals are pretty clear. Other than that, I don't really have any more.''
Tiger Woods wants to win the Grand Slam every year, as did Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer before him. But rarely did they state their intentions so plainly, and so early in the game.
``That was one of her goals last year,'' LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said. ``She didn't articulate it the way she has this year. But I think the fact that she was in the final group (in three of four majors) going into Sunday gave her the opportunity to say, 'I can do this.'''
One thing seems certain based on her round at Augusta National.
She'll be ready.
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