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Annika Sorenstam hoping for happy end to season

Even though everyone knows she's been injured, it's still strange to watch a player as good as Annika Sorenstam struggle the way she has in 2007.

It's also strange to hear her talk about the state of her game like this: "I've been able to play but it just hasn't been the way I know I can."

She has reason to believe things could change this week at the Solheim Cup. Heading into the match-play contest between the best in Europe and the United States, Sorenstam says her bad back and neck, which forced her to miss two months earlier this year, are as good as they've felt in the last 18 months.

"I wish I could say I'm back to 100 percent," she said Wednesday, two days before the event begins with alternate-shot matches at Halmstad Golf Club on the southwest coast of Sweden. "I'm not there yet, but it's certainly going in the right direction."

The "right direction" means that she's able to swing the club without it feeling completely foreign, that she's able to work on making specific shots instead of merely concentrating on getting the club into position at the top. And that she's not in pain.

This all stems from a bulging disk in her back and a ruptured disk in her neck that flared up last year, around the time of the U.S. Open, and got so bad earlier this year that she had to take time off.

Sorenstam is winless this year, in danger of completing her first full season on tour since 1994, when she was a rookie, without a victory. Maybe not that stunning even for a top-caliber player, unless you consider that Sorenstam has 84 career victories and won more than 41 percent of her starts between 2001 and 2005. She has also lost the top spot in the rankings to Lorena Ochoa.

"There's no reason to be upset and angry," Sorenstam insists.

Indeed, this has not been a completely lost year.

She has opened her new golf academy, a 5,400-square-foot facility near Orlando that she says is designed to share her passion for golf and fitness with players around the world.

And she got engaged to Mike McGee, a former agent who now works as Sorenstam's business manager.

All that has put her struggles on the golf course in perspective.

"At times it was tough and kind of like, `Why is this happening?"' Sorenstam said. "But it's been a great year overall. Maybe not so well on the golf course, but everything around what I do has been fabulous. I have every reason to smile."

Even though the visiting team hasn't won the Solheim Cup since 1996, when this year's captain, Betsy King, led the Americans to an upset in Wales, the Europeans are about a 3-2 underdog according to several British oddsmakers.

The reason is the depth of the U.S. lineup. The United States not only has Juli Inkster, a six-time Solheim veteran, but also U.S. Open winner Cristie Kerr, Nabisco winner Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and, overall, eight of the 25 players in the world rankings.

The Europeans are solid at the top -- with Suzann Pettersen, Sophie Gustafson and Laura Davies -- but there is a feeling they'll need all they can get out of Sorenstam. Her ability to play in all five matches -- as she's done every year but one since the current format was adapted in 1996 -- is in the air.

"If you would have asked me two months ago, I would have said `No,"' Sorenstam said. "It's different once you get here, with the adrenaline pumping, and I also feel better now."

She said captain Helen Alfredsson has not yet asked her what she wants to do and figures she'll play at least the first three matches, then see how she feels before deciding on the fourth one.

"Obviously, we know the circumstances, but I think she feels in very good shape right now," Alfredsson said. "I have no idea today what the pairing is going to be. Well, I have a little bit, but I'm not going to tell you."

Pairings for the first matches will be released Thursday afternoon.

Regardless of how many matches Sorenstam plays this week, all signs for her are pointing in the right direction. In her last tournament, the State Farm Classic over Labor Day weekend, Sorenstam was in contention through the end. She shot 67 on Sunday to finish in third place, three strokes behind winner Sherri Steinhauer, who is here this week on the American team.

Whoever draws Sorenstam in these match-play constests figures to have her work cut out.

"It's hard to lay off and come back and be perfect," Inkster said. "It just doesn't work like that. I'd say right now, Lorena's ranked No. 1 and she deserves it, but Annika's not far behind. You can kind of see it coming together."


September 13, 2007

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