Sorenstam ponders PGA Tour possibilities

Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Annika Sorenstam has dominated her competition on the LPGA Tour the last two seasons. Her next challenge might be against the men.

Sorenstam said Wednesday she would relish the chance to play a PGA Tour event, provided she received a sponsor's exemption and the tournament was held on a golf course that suits her game.

''If I got an invite, I would say, 'Yes,' in a heartbeat,'' she said at Bay Hill Club and Lodge during an appearance for Callaway Golf. ''It's a great challenge. It's not something I want to do regularly. But it would be a great learning experience.''

Her agent, Mark Steinberg of IMG, said the chances of that happening this year are ''very possible,'' as long as it's the right tournament, the right course, and it fits her LPGA Tour schedule.

''I suspect that after today, there will be more than one tournament that is very interested,'' he said. ''There are going to be several tournaments that will not even consider it. That would be my guess. But there will be quite a few that express some interest.''

Eric Mehl, tournament director of the 84 Lumber Classic of Pennsylvania, said it is too early to determine how the new event will use its sponsor's exemptions in September.

''It's definitely intriguing,'' he said when told of Sorenstam's comments. ''We'll look to see what's best for the tournament.''

PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs said the tour has no regulations against women playing, and tournaments have the flexibility to use their exemptions to round out the field or to create interest.

He said it was ''conceivable'' that a tournament would offer Sorenstam an exemption.

The topic came up when Sorenstam, who won 13 times around the world last year and set or tied nearly two dozen records, was asked about Suzy Whaley.

Whaley, a Connecticut club pro, won a PGA sectional from a shorter set of tees than the men and qualified for the Greater Hartford Open in July. She will be the first woman to play on the PGA Tour in the modern era.

Whaley will have to play from the championship tees with the men.

''I think she's very brave,'' Sorenstam said. ''She's doing this to show her daughters that anything is possible. I heard in an interview that she doesn't expect to break 90. At least she has a goal set, and she knows what's going to happen.''

Sorenstam doesn't think Whaley's score, no matter how high, would be a setback for women's golf. She pointed out that Whaley is primarily a teaching pro, not a touring professional who competes regularly.

The 32-year-old Swede has higher goals if she ever gets that chance.

''If I pick the right course, I think I would do well,'' she said, adding that she could only compete if the course wasn't excessively long, had tight fairways and punishing rough, which she rarely gets into as the LPGA's best driver.

Hilton Head was offered as an example, although Sorenstam will be defending her title that week in the LPGA Takefugi Classic.

Sorenstam has some experience competing against the men. She teamed with Tiger Woods two years ago at Bighorn when they defeated David Duval and Karrie Webb in an alternate-shot match.

It wasn't the best plug for women's golf -- neither Sorenstam nor Webb could find the fairway on the final few holes, and Sorenstam putted one ball off the green.

Last month in Mexico, Sorenstam and Jack Nicklaus played to a tie against Duval and Lorena Ochoa in an 18-hole exhibition.

If she did play in a PGA Tour event, Sorenstam doesn't think the perception of women's golf would depend on her performance. She says women already face unfair comparisons to the men, from length off the tee to the amount of prize money.

''It would be more beneficial if I did well,'' she said. ''If not, then I don't think it would change anything.''

Steinberg said Sorenstam first broached the possibility during her 2002 season, when she won 10 times on the LPGA Tour and earned $2.8 million.

Still, Sorenstam said playing against men is not atop her to-do list.

Along with Whaley's qualifying for Hartford, 13-year-old Michelle Wie of Hawaii tried to qualify for the Sony Open last week. She shot a 73 from the back tees at Pearl Country Club, finishing six strokes out of a playoff.

''I'm interested,'' Sorenstam said. ''Now you've got Suzy Whaley, and that's such a big deal. I don't think the timing is right. But I'm playing so well, I don't want to wait too long. It's not on my priority list, but if I have a chance, I'd love to do it.''

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