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Annika Sorenstam looking for another Safeway title

Fresh off a victory in her first LPGA tournament of the season, Annika Sorenstam seems poised for a repeat of 2005, when she won 11 of the 21 events she entered and earned a tour-leading $2.59 million.

But that's not what the No. 1 woman golfer is thinking as she goes after her third consecutive Safeway International victory this week at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. A week ago, she opened her 2006 season with a one-stroke victory in the MasterCard Classic in Huixquilucan, Mexico.

"When you look back at 2005 and say, 'You know what, you won 10 times on the LPGA and once in Europe; you have to win 11 times to tie,' that seems like too much pressure," Sorenstam said Wednesday. "So I just want to start this year with a fresh line and just play what I can and see what happens.

"I really don't feel a lot of pressure to perform the way I have the last three years," Sorenstam said. "I just feel good about my game. I just want to come out, have a good time and get a little better here and there."

It's hard to imagine Sorenstam getting much better. Last year, she won her eighth Rolex Player of the Year award, passing Kathy Whitworth for the most in LPGA history.

In recent years it has seemed as though Sorenstam's prime competition is herself -- and history. Five years ago, at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, she became the only player in LPGA history to shoot a 59. She is the only player to sweep the Player of the Year, scoring and money titles five times. Her scoring averages over the last five years have been the five best in LPGA history.

But the 35-year-old Sorenstam is facing a bold challenge from a wave of talented youngsters. Many of them are in the Safeway International field, including 19-year-old Paula Creamer, the 2005 LPGA Rookie of the Year, 17-year-old Morgan Pressel and 20-year-old rookie Seon Hwa Lee, who finished a stroke behind Sorenstam last week in Mexico.

"I compare myself to the best players," Creamer said. "And that's Annika right now. I look ahead of me, not behind me. And I think Annika has set standards that are very high. You know that when she is in a tournament, she is going to be in contention. And, you know, I want to be where she's at."

Sorenstam isn't waiting for the kids to catch her. She said she tweaked her game during the winter, straightening her putting stroke and widening her stance.

Sorenstam also has moved on in her personal life after divorcing David Esch, her husband of eight years.

"I am happier on the course," Sorenstam said. "I am happier off the course. Obviously that's a good balance to have."

The message to the youngsters is clear: Sorenstam isn't ready to concede the throne any time soon, although she is willing to share the spotlight.

"It's a great challenge, there's no doubt about it," Sorenstam said when asked about being pushed by the tour newcomers. "I think the last few years we've had a lot of young and up-and-coming players that are very good. It's nice to see that they bring some attention to the tour.

"This is a solid group," Sorenstam said. "There's a lot more younger players coming up, and they've got strong games and they're making a lot of noise."

Indeed, Creamer and Pressel were brought to the interview tent Tuesday to accommodate growing media demands. With the spotlight focused on the younger players, Sorenstam joked that she might be able to play "under the radar" this year.

That's unlikely. Sorenstam heads into 2006 aiming to win an unprecedented four majors in the same season.

"I don't think that's a surprise to anyone," Sorenstam said. "I am going to focus on the majors. It's in the back of my mind.

"I think what I've got to do is just take one step at a time, one tournament at a time, trying to prepare as much as I can for the majors," Sorenstam said. "I know how to win them. I've just got to be able to do it in one year. So that's my biggest goal this year."

March 16, 2006

 




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