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Annika Sorenstam aims for Grand Slam again

Annika Sorenstam came to the California desert last year with a big goal befitting her status as the dominant player in women's golf. She wanted to do what no one had ever done -- win all four LPGA major championships in one year.

By the final round of the first major of the year, that goal was history. Sorenstam was never in contention in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and she would go on to win only one major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

With a new year, though, comes new opportunity. And this year brings even more.

Sorenstam begins play Thursday in the Kraft Nabisco with a shot at all four majors once again, but the way she's been playing perhaps that goal is too modest. After all, Sorenstam has won her first two tournaments so far this year, and four in a row going back to last season.

Perhaps a new goal should be winning every time she tees it up. Sorenstam had to mull that one over a bit Wednesday before answering, but the thought is clearly in her mind.

"I'm not afraid of challenges. I like to set goals and I like to challenge myself,'' Sorenstam said. "I set some lofty goals last year, no doubt about it. But it's not like I look back at last year and say it was a bad year because I didn't achieve my goals.

By anyone else's standards, it was a banner year. Sorenstam only won one major, but she won seven other LPGA tournaments and 10 tournaments overall.

She's back on a course that she likes and her game is as good as it has been. She's not only an odds-on favorite, but also an intimidating presence.

"I want to win majors,'' Sorenstam said. "I know I'm playing well and I know this golf course. I really don't have any excuses.''

Grace Park is the defending champion, but Sorenstam and teenage sensation Michelle Wie will be the ones providing the buzz as the LPGA season begins in earnest on the tight fairways and slick greens of the Mission Hills Country Club.

Sorenstam, despite going through divorce proceedings, is on yet another roll and threatening to make this another season to remember. She was bothered by personal problems last year, but says she now knows where she is and where she's going.

"I feel happier than I have in a long time,'' Sorenstam said.

She won last week in Phoenix, making up four shots in the last three holes before winning a playoff with Lorena Ochoa. Sorenstam set up the win by hitting a 4-wood 230 yards to make birdie on the last hole and force overtime.

"Probably one of the best shots I've hit in a long, long time,'' Sorenstam said.

That's saying a lot from a player who has shot a 59, played against men and won 58 times on the LPGA Tour. She went over $16 million in career earnings with the Phoenix win, and has won six of her last eight tournaments.

Wie hasn't won a penny of professional money on the golf course but she will be playing her third LPGA tournament of the year and, at the age of 15, her third Nabisco. She's finished in the top 10 both previous times, including a fourth place last year.

"This is my third year here and I feel a lot more mature,'' Wie said. "I know I learned a lot more about myself. The first time I played out here it was kind of strange playing with people that were a lot older than me, but I'm used to it right now.''

Now that she's almost a seasoned veteran, Wie's goals are evolving from competing in tournaments to perhaps winning one. If there has been any criticism of her precocious career, it is that she should be getting experience winning amateur events so she can learn to win among the pros.

Wie nearly won her first tournament of the year back home in Hawaii, finishing tied for second, two shots behind Jennifer Rosales, in the SBS Open. She tied for 12th last week in Phoenix.

"Definitely the top thing on my list is to win at least one tournament this year,'' Wie said. "But, you know, the main thing is just to have fun and play well.''

Wie actually had a chance at winning here last year, beginning the final round two shots out of the lead. But she missed several birdie chances on the front nine and was never really in contention.

Park seized the opportunity last year to win her first major title, making a 6-footer on the 18th green before taking the traditional winner's plunge into the pond surrounding the final hole.

Park, though, will have a tough time defending this week. She injured her back playing in Mexico City earlier this year, and as late as Tuesday wasn't even sure she would be able to defend her title.

"I've had back pain as long as I've played golf and its just something that comes and goes,'' she said. "But this time around, it's pretty bad. It's pretty painful. I don't have any nerve damage but I'm having sharp pains.''

Park said winning last year was a big confidence boost.

"I felt like I matured a lot as a golfer from winning this tournament,'' she said. "Not just getting confidence, getting the trophy, having a major title under my belt, but just as a golfer and as a person I matured a lot.''

 

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