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The Year in Golf

Swede Roll

Sorenstam's crossover appeal was story of year

November 20, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The bright green "Go Annika" buttons sold out in less than a day. That's when we should have known. The date was May 22, the place was Colonial Country Club in a leafy section of Fort Worth and the moment was one for the history books.

On both sides of the fairway, the crowd of spectators was 10 deep and they strained against the gallery ropes to try to catch a glimpse of Annika Sorenstam as she hit her tee shot, becoming the first female in 58 years to play in a tournament on the PGA Tour.

Sorenstam wedged her way into the tee area, where there was loud applause as the announcer introduced her. The fans grew quiet. She touched her cap, set up over the ball and slammed it, high and straight, down the middle of the fairway.

As the gallery cheered again when she started walking after the ball, Sorenstam pretended to swoon and patted her heart.

The record will show that Sorenstam wound up missing the cut by four shots, but that falls far short of revealing the actual impact of her accomplishment, which was both gender bending and mind-blowing.

A woman competing against the men?

Go figure.

"The most important thing of the whole Colonial [experience] is that I was being myself," Sorenstam said. "I was playing a tournament that I wanted to play. I was challenging myself. And I think in the end people realized that. That I was challenging myself. That it was not a publicity stunt. It was for me.

"And when I can be myself and follow my dreams and set my goals, I feel very comfortable.

"In the past, I have always felt the pressure from maybe the LPGA, from people around, that I had to be somebody that I wasn't. People compared me to Nancy Lopez and I'm the next generation and I'm going to carry the flag forward. I always felt a lot of pressure.

"So when I played at Colonial, it was a lot of pressure, but I was doing it because I wanted to do it. I think the reaction [from] the fans, the people in general, [was] that they understood what I was doing it for.

"People accepted me for the way I am and things I do. And that's easier for me than trying to pretend to be somebody who I am not."

What Sorenstam became during those days at Colonial was the player who produced the year's most memorable moment in professional golf.

If Sorenstam's goal at Colonial was to make her a better player on the LPGA Tour, she certainly accomplished that by winning two majors, the LPGA Championship and then the Women's British Open, where she completed a career grand slam.

"Annika made it a remarkable year," LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw said. "For herself, for the LPGA, for all of golf."

And as we allow ourselves time to look back, it's not as if there wasn't any competition.

Sorenstam dominated, but there was no lack of either golf news or the number of people making it in 2003, when the only real common thread through it all was a certain shock value bundled up and presented to the golf fan on a numbingly regular basis.

Who would have thought that any other story would edge out what shaped up as the year's heaviest hitter, the extended flap over Augusta National's membership and its lack of females? The Hootie Johnson-Martha Burk melodrama led to Johnson's decision as chairman of the all-male club to foot the bill for television costs by putting its major TV sponsors on the sideline and out of the fracas.

Burk, the leader of the National Council of Women's Organizations, vowed a protest during the Masters, but it mostly fizzled, at least partially because the protest venue was almost out of sight of the club.

Women's issues were to be big in golf in 2003, as Sorenstam became the vanguard. Michelle Wie, only 13, played in seven LPGA Tour events and missed only one cut, and tied for ninth at the first major of the year, the Nabisco Championship. She also played a men's Nationwide Tour event, missing the cut, and will play in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in January.

Other female golfers who crossed the line and played in men's professional events were Suzy Whaley, Laura Davies, Jan Stephenson and Se Ri Pak, who was 10th at an Asian Tour event in South Korea.

Against such stiff competition, the men made more than their share of headlines. Ernie Els won the first two PGA Tour events of the year, setting a tour scoring record of 31 under par in the first, won five more times worldwide, faded in his showdown with Tiger Woods at Bay Hill, but still enjoyed his best year and was rewarded by receiving absolutely zero recognition as anybody's player of the year.

If it weren't for Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson would have reigned as punching bag of the year. Mickelson, who has long nurtured an inclination not to like the media much, seems to have perfected it. The spiral began in earnest when he said Woods was using "inferior equipment" and got skewered for it, even though Woods seemed to agree when he ditched his prototype Nike driver later in the year.

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