The world will be watching -- and keeping score

Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2003

She teed it up against men on a course that became known as Hogan's Alley, and while she held her own, the world's best female golfer failed to make the final cut.

That was the 1945 Los Angeles Open, and it wound up as only a footnote among the amazing accomplishments of Babe Zaharias.

Annika Sorenstam might not be so lucky. No matter what happens when Sorenstam plays in the PGA Tour's Colonial in May, it could become the defining moment of her career.

That's one reason Tiger Woods offered his support with caution.

''I think it's great she's playing, but -- this is the 'but' part -- it will only be great for women's golf if she plays well,'' Woods said. ''I think if she goes out there and posts two high scores, I think it's going to be more detrimental than it's going to be good.''

Years from now, more people will remember what she did at Colonial -- whether she made the cut or missed it badly -- than how many LPGA Tour events Sorenstam won.

She is not trying to champion a cause. Sorenstam said to put women's golf entirely on her shoulders would be a heavy load, and that's not why she's playing.

''I'm not here to prove anything. I'm here to test myself,'' she said.

Still, the question was quick to arise when Sorenstam first mentioned Jan. 22 that she would say ''yes in a heartbeat'' if offered an invitation to play on the PGA Tour.

Does the perception of women's golf depend on her performance?

Sorenstam said women in the sport already face unfair comparisons with men, from the prize money to the size and setup of the golf courses they play.

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

But there already is a precedent.

Go back two years to the ''Battle at Bighorn,'' when Sorenstam and Woods played against David Duval and Karrie Webb in a made-for-TV exhibition designed to showcase the women in a format (mixed teams) where they couldn't fail.

Then, gusts up to 30 mph hit the California desert about 15 minutes before showtime, creating some of the toughest conditions all year.

Sorenstam made a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff that she and Woods won, but that's not what people remember. The lasting image was Sorenstam's knocking a 25-foot birdie putt off the green and into the fairway. Also, neither woman managed to hit the 18th fairway in regulation or the playoff.

''It was a very difficult day,'' Sorenstam said. ''I learned something, and that's just how I look at things -- to move on and get better.''

It is pointless to predict what might happen at Colonial. Phil Mickelson says she will finish 20th. Jeff Sluman believes she can make the cut. Privately, other players say she has no chance of getting to the weekend without a rain delay.

''I have no expectations of how I will finish,'' Sorenstam said.

But whether this is the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour or the Battle at Bighorn, one thing about golf never changes.

Everyone will be keeping score.

''If she makes the cut, does that prove anything?'' Brad Faxon asked. ''If she finishes 40th or 20th? Is that a gauge for what? We already know she's the best woman golfer.''

There is a certain mystique about Sorenstam that she created by becoming the first woman to shoot 59. Her rhythmic swing, the head rotating down the fairway just before she makes contact, is the most intimidating in women's golf. She rarely makes mistakes.

Still, as recently as two years ago, she wasn't even the best in women's golf. It was Webb who dominated the LPGA by winning the career Grand Slam, winning back-to-back U.S. Women's Opens by a combined 13 strokes and drawing comparisons to Mickey Wright.

Despite her awesome record, Sorenstam has won only four majors in nine years. Webb has won five majors, Juli Inkster seven.

''If she built up her record and won, let's say, 10 majors, then nothing could take away from that no matter what she did at Colonial,'' Woods said.

Zaharias was the last woman to play on the PGA Tour. She qualified for the Los Angeles Open and made the 36-hole cut, only to get eliminated the next day with a 79.

Such a feat isn't even mentioned in the ''Story of American Golf'' by Herbert Warren Wind. Zaharias is best known as the greatest female athlete in the first half of the 20th century -- she won gold medals at the 1932 Olympics in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw and claimed 10 major championships in golf.

Sorenstam got more attention for accepting an invitation to the Colonial than for anything she has ever done on the LPGA Tour, from her 59 to winning more tournaments last season (13) than any golfer in nearly 40 years.

Some major newspapers already plan to cover Sorenstam's first LPGA tournament in Phoenix. She will be in the spotlight in all six of the tournaments she plays before she gets to the Colonial.

Sorenstam might not want to carry women's golf on her broad shoulders, but it will be along for the ride.

Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press.



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