Valley of the Stars Championship
Valley of the Stars Championship
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Nilsmark tops Sorenstam in playoff

GLENDALE, Calif. The Swede everyone expected to win didn't.

Annika Sorenstam missed a 3-foot par putt on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, giving fellow Swede Catrin Nilsmark her first LPGA victory in the Valley of the Stars Championship today.

"That's what it takes to beat Annika, you've got to have a little bit of luck,'' said Nilsmark, who earned $97,500 in her first career playoff.

Sorenstam rallied from five shots down early in the round to force the playoff with a 4-foot birdie putt on the 440-yard, par-5 18th. It was her third birdie in three days on the hole that later stymied her.

"I'm not shocked, I'm very disappointed,'' said Sorenstam, the LPGA's player of the year and leading money-winner in 1998. "I fought really well. I was five shots behind and it's a tough course to chase somebody.''

She and Nilsmark, a fifth-year pro whose previous best finish was a third-place tie, ended regulation deadlocked at 22-under 204. Sorenstam shot a final round 5-under 67, while Nilsmark had a 71 at Oakmont Country Club.

The playoff began on the 18th. Nilsmark's approach landed in the bunker. She hit out and the ball came to a rest below the hole. Her birdie putt barely slid past on the right, leaving her an easy par putt.

"I would've liked to make my (birdie) putt and wait for her to feel the pressure,'' Nilsmark said.

Sorenstam chipped from the fringe on her third shot, with the ball stopping 4 feet above the hole. Her birdie attempt to win also went right of the hole, and a frustrated Sorenstam banged her putter against her cap.

"I thought I'd lost for sure because she's such a good putter,'' Nilsmark said. "She's good when it counts.''

Nilsmark stood watching with her arms folded as Sorenstam stood over a 3-footer for par that would have continued the playoff. Sorenstam missed and a gasp went up from the crowd as the ball hung on the lip of the cup.

"It's really very, very surprising,'' Nilsmark said of the miss. "It didn't even enter my mind that could happen. It took a few seconds before my caddie turned around and said, 'You won.' ''

Nilsmark led a Swedish sweep of the top three spots. Countrywoman Liselotte Neumann equaled Sorenstam with the day's low round of 67 to finish at 18-under 208.

Stephanie Lowe, who began the day two shots behind Nilsmark, faded fast with four bogeys in her first seven holes for a 76. She tied Jane Geddes for fourth at 211. Another Swede, Helen Alfredsson, and defending champion Dale Eggeling tied for fifth at 213.

Sorenstam trailed Nilsmark by one shot after a birdie on the 15th. But Nilsmark got it right back on the 16th with a spectacular chip from 40 feet for birdie to take a two-stroke lead with two holes to play.

"That one was really tricky,'' said Nilsmark, who shot a course-record 65, highlighted by an eagle on the 18th, in Saturday's second round. "I was standing over the ball and said, 'Just remember you still have a one-shot lead. Don't get too cute.' ''

Nilsmark stumbled on the 17th when she two-putted for bogey, allowing Sorenstam to close within one shot heading to the 18th.

Nilsmark made the green in three, leaving herself a 15-foot birdie putt to win. She missed when the ball went wide left by about one foot.

Sorenstam's second shot found the back bunker, but she got out of the trap with a shot that landed four feet from the hole. She sank the putt, not knowing a similar putt would prove so difficult in the playoff.

DIVOTS: Sorenstam fell to 4-2 in career playoffs. She earned $60,510 to push her career winnings over the $4 million mark. ... The tournament went to a playoff for the second straight year. Eggeling won the rain-shortened 36-hole event on the first playoff hole in 1998, beating Hiromi Kobayashi. ... Sorenstam was headed to Lake Tahoe for a two-week skiing trip after the tournament.