CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. Her dream of a Grand Slam having dissipated in the mile-high air, Annika Sorenstam stuck around Cherry Hills long enough to watch the final act of a U.S. Women's Open that kept everyone in suspense to the very end.
Ultimately, the biggest surprise was Sorenstam being reduced to the role of spectator.
So dominant in winning the first two majors by a combined 11 shots, Sorenstam was under par for only two of the 72 holes she played at the U.S. Women's Open. No one worried about her over the weekend because Sorenstam never got any closer than five shots from the lead.
Sorenstam wound up in a tie for 23rd, nine shots behind Birdie Kim. It was her lowest finish in 52 tournaments, dating to a missed cut in the 2002 Women's British Open.
''It was a tough week, a tough championship,'' Sorenstam said. ''But you always learn something. I'm sure I will look back at this week and bring something good out of it.''
What she likely will find is an opportunity that might not get any easier.
She is still miles ahead of everyone else on the LPGA Tour, but competition that has been lacking the last two years might be coming sooner than anyone realizes.
Teenagers were all the rage at Cherry Hills, and four of them Morgan Pressel (17), Brittany Lang (19), Michelle Wie (15) and Paula Creamer (18) had a share of the lead at some point during the Women's Open.
Sorenstam gave Pressel a hearty hug after the feisty Floridian had the Open snatched away by Kim's spectacular bunker shot that dropped for birdie on the 72nd hole. She told Pressel she played great and to keep her spirits up because there would be many more chances.
''If we can keep playing well ... it's just going to be tougher to win,'' Pressel said. ''I don't know if you will see anybody dominate like Annika. There's going to be so many players that are really, really good at a young age.''
The Grand Slam is tough enough as it is, proven by the fact Sorenstam was only the sixth player to get halfway home since Arnold Palmer reinvented golf's Holy Grail in 1960.
Of those six players, Sorenstam and Tiger Woods are the only players who failed to finish in the top 10 while going for the third leg of the slam. Woods tied for 28th in the 2002 British Open.
''To win the slam, you have to be able to control yourself,'' Palmer said last week. ''Then are outside factors you have no control over, that people don't think about. You've just got to hope they work out for you.''
They didn't for Woods. He was two shots out of the lead going into the third round at Muirfield when nasty weather rolled in and sent him to an 81, his worst score as a professional.
The biggest competition Sorenstam faced at Cherry Hills was herself.
For someone who has won 62 times and nine majors, and faced the enormous pressure of being the first woman to compete on the PGA Tour in 58 years at the 2003 Colonial, she felt jangled nerves before hitting her first shot.
And while Sorenstam won't second-guess herself, her strategy raises some questions.
She looked like she was trying to steer her way around this U.S. Open, drawing up a game plan and sticking to it no matter the circumstances.
''I didn't feel like she played aggressive enough those first two rounds and today she was really having to chop out of the rough a lot,'' said Rosie Jones, paired with Sorenstam the first two rounds and the last one. ''I don't know if this course is really set up for her. She didn't seem comfortable on it.''
Laura Davies thought it was right up Sorenstam's alley because of her length and accuracy. She chose iron off the tee on the 539-yard fifth hole, fearing it was too tight in the landing area.
''Some of these fairways are like hitting into a thimble,'' said her caddie, Terry McNamara.
Stranger still, Sorenstam figured 4 over par would be enough to win she was off by one incredible shot but shifted gears from conservative to go-for-broke in the final round.
It started with a driver on the opening hole, just like Palmer when he charged from behind to win the 1960 U.S. Open. But she had no chance to reach the green, and instead went into a hazard and made bogey.
''It's tough to speculate,'' Sorenstam said when asked if she was too aggressive on Sunday. ''I had a game plan. I am not going to second-guess myself. Normally, when I come up with a plan, it works. I'm going to leave it at that.''
It was the third time Sorenstam stumbled while trying to make history.
She was trying to become the first woman to win three straight U.S. Women's Open titles in 1997 at Pumpkin Ridge and missed the cut. Last month, she had a chance to win a record six straight LPGA Tour events in Kingsmill, was never a factor and finished out of the top 10.
The Grand Slam was her chief goal this year, but one bad week doesn't mean there is nothing left.
Sorenstam has always wanted to win 10 majors, and her next chance is in five weeks at Royal Birkdale. She can still go after Mickey Wright's record of 13 victories in a year.
But the Grand Slam will have to wait nine more months, when she steps to the plate at the Kraft Nabisco Championship next March. It probably won't be any easier the next time around.
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