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Annika Sorenstam wins Athlete of the Year

Annika Sorenstam is linked with Babe Zaharias again, although this has nothing to do with competing against men.

The Swedish golf star turned a season that had all the trappings of a struggle into another year of superlatives, becoming the first woman in 19 years to capture the first two legs of the Grand Slam, winning 10 times on the LPGA Tour and twice putting the teenagers in their place.

No one is close to her in women's golf.

And she was a landslide winner as the AP Female Athlete of the Year, making Sorenstam the first golfer since Zaharias (1945-47) to win the award three straight years.

"I am flattered and honored to be chosen by so many different editors," said Sorenstam, who received 47 of 81 votes cast by AP newspaper and broadcast members.

Danica Patrick, the rookie race car driver whose fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis 500 was the best ever by a female, received 17 votes. Maria Sharapova got five votes for becoming the first Russian-born tennis player to reach No. 1, while Wimbledon champ Venus Williams and 16-year-old golfer Michelle Wie each got four votes.

Lance Armstrong was voted Male Athlete of the Year for the fourth straight year.

Zaharias won the AP Female Athlete award six times in her career, one of those years in track. As badly as Sorenstam has beaten up on her competition this decade, maybe it's time for her to try another sport.

"When Annika comes to play, Annika comes to win," Lorie Kane said.

It wasn't as easy as it might have looked.

Before she played in her first tournament, Sorenstam filed for divorce from her husband of eight years, a distraction that lingered until it was finalized in August. But she found refuge inside the ropes, adding a few more tournaments than usual, and winning at an alarming rate.

"Golf has been my savior, there's no doubt about that," she said.

Sorenstam won the first three tournaments, giving her five straight LPGA Tour victories dating to the end of 2004 to match the record set by Nancy Lopez. And when that streak ended, another began at the majors.

She lapped the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, winning by eight shots. She easily won the next major, the LPGA Championship, by three shots over Wie. At the time, Sorenstam had won six of her eight tournaments, and she looked unbeatable.

But her hopes of a Grand Slam evaporated in the mile-high air of Denver when Sorenstam had a three-putt bogey and a four-putt double bogey in a span of four holes in the third round. The letdown was obvious as Sorenstam went into a mini-slump during the summer, although that didn't last long.

"This year, I won some big ones," she said. "Maybe in the summer, I was a little shaky at times. But you know, I dug deeper and I came back when I needed to. I'm very proud of that."

Despite unparalleled success, Sorenstam needed to deliver a few reminders of who rules women's golf.

She was an afterthought at the Samsung World Championship when Wie made her professional debut. With all eyes on 6-foot teen from Hawaii, Sorenstam opened with a 64 and wound up winning by eight shots.

"I want to play well when everyone is talking about someone else," she said. "I'm very competitive."

Then at the season-ending ADT Championship, 19-year-old rookie Paula Creamer challenged Sorenstam on a drop and then challenged her integrity. Sorenstam responded by zipping by the teenager over the next three days, and closing out the year with her 10th victory.

Sorenstam's game is more sound than it is spectacular, but it is no less intimidating. Her scoring average (69.33) was 1 1/2 strokes better than anyone else. While she had 10 victories, no one else had more than two. She shot under par 74 percent of the time; the next best was 55 percent.

Sorenstam and Zaharias first were mentioned together two years ago, when Sorenstam played at the Colonial and became the first woman to compete on the PGA Tour since Zaharias in 1945.

That was the first year the 35-year-old Swede won the AP Female Athlete award, and while Sorenstam won two majors and completed the career Grand Slam that season, it seemed as though she would forever be associated with testing herself against the men.

That's no longer the case.

Sorenstam is dominating golf far more than Tiger Woods has on the PGA Tour. Among the many records she set this year was becoming the first LPGA Tour player to sweep the major awards five straight years -- player of the year, money title and Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average.

"I believe people have a better overall feeling for who I am," she said. "I think they accept me and my competitive nature, after seeing me at Colonial. I am always trying to find different ways to take my game to a new level."

Having flirted with the idea of early retirement, Sorenstam now has won 43 times in the last five years, and her 66 career victories have put her in range of a record few people thought would ever be touched -- the 88 career victories by Kathy Whitworth.

The question now is how far she can go.

December 29, 2005

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