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Even if it wasn't on the level, Annika Sorenstam's stunning
victory in last week's U.S. Women's Open Championship left
onlookers certain they had glimpsed the real thing. After all,
only a genuine talent could have outplayed two LPGA Hall of
Famers and a former Women's Open champ under Open pressure. Only
a straight shooter could have shrugged off stances that
resembled teeterboards and putts that seemed to break uphill.
Only a 24-year-old with true grit and the right stuff and dead
aim and ... well, let first-round leader Jill Briles-Hinton say
it: "When I'm struggling with my swing," the nine-year tour
veteran said last week, "I watch Annika."

Sorenstam, one of a growing number of Swedish-born stars on the
LPGA Tour, won her first American pro tournament and the most
prestigious title in women's golf on Sunday, firing a
two-under-par 68 for a 278 total. The former University of
Arizona star and 1991 NCAA champion did it on a revered track,
the Broadmoor Golf Club's East Course in Colorado Springs. She
did it with three of the game's best players--Pat Bradley, Betsy
King and Meg Mallon--bearing down on her like a Rocky Mountain
thunderstorm. She did it with the biggest gallery in Women's
Open history looking on. And she did it with sunglasses perched
on her cap for half the round, as if she had just ducked into a
deli for a sandwich.

Sorenstam seems just a child. She speaks fluent English, but in
a tiny voice. She rolls her eyes like a teenager when flustered.
After her victory, as she talked on the phone with her parents
in Stockholm, she wept--dropping a wet tissue into the
championship cup at her feet. But for four rounds Sorenstam
played with a maturity beyond her years, and when she was
through, she was the sixth foreign winner in the tournament's
50-year history and the first since countrywoman Liselotte
Neumann won in 1988.

More than any recent Women's Open, this one required
course-management skills of the highest order. The 6,398-yard
Broadmoor East Course, built on the lower slopes of Cheyenne
Mountain, is actually a composite course. Nine of the holes
(1-6, 16-18) were designed by legendary golf architect Donald
Ross, a minimalist; the rest, above a roadway, owe their more
dramatic looks to Robert Trent Jones, the dean of giantism. All
the holes, however, lean toward Goodland, Kans., and the tilt,
combined with the thin air at 6,500 feet, forces golfers to
crunch a bunch of numbers-adding 10% to 15% carry for most full
shots, for instance, or addressing a 20-foot putt and
pretending it's a two-footer. "You're not seeing these breaks,"
said Rosie Jones, who tied for fifth. "You're feeling them with
your feet as you walk up."

Under such conditions, victory goes not to the strongest or the
steadiest of nerve, but to the most disciplined. The prudent
shot, on most holes, was away from the flag and below the hole,
and players who got frisky with the pin saw their hopes fade in
a flurry of three-putts. Said LPGA champion Kelly Robbins, who
wouldn't let her caddie help her read the sloping greens, "One
guess is enough for both of us."

It was almost as hard to read the portents. After two
rounds--which took the two scheduled days plus two hours of
Saturday morning, thanks to a Friday-afternoon
thunderstorm--eight players shared the lead at two under par.
The most intriguing was Dawn Coe-Jones, who played with her
shirttail out to accommodate a 6-1/2-month pregnancy. Leta
Lindley was also in her third trimester-not pregnant, but 7-1/2
months into her rookie season. A four-time All-America (and
Sorenstam's teammate at Arizona), Lindley, 23, finished tied for
fifth and smiled so winningly that outgoing LPGA commissioner
Charles Mechem said, "If I were going to adopt another daughter,
I think it would be Leta."

With all that talk of parenting, there should have been room for
56-year-old JoAnne (Big Momma) Carner, but she missed the Open
cut for the first time in 26 appearances. "It's a little odd
checking on flights out of town on Friday," said Carner, who won
the Open in 1971 and '76.

What had been a muddle seemed to sort itself out on Saturday, as
Mallon matched Briles-Hinton's two-day-old course-record 66 to
take a two-stroke lead over Julie Larsen. A winner of the LPGA
Championship and the Women's Open in her best year, 1991, Mallon
is known as a strong finisher. But on Sunday she put her tee
shot on the 139-yard par-3 4th hole into a pond and made triple
bogey. Eight pairings ahead, King already had birdied four of
her first five holes. Bradley, Larsen, and Sorenstam joined
Mallon and King in a five-way tie at the top.

Sorenstam, benefiting from the experience of having won two
recent European tour events, then birdied 9, 10 and 11, looking
immune to the pressure. (Actually, she said afterward, her hands
shook on every putt.) After bogeys on 15 and 16, Sorenstam saw
her three-shot lead dwindle to one, and when she struggled to
make a par on the benign par-5 17th, it seemed that she might
fold. But she scrambled for par there and coolly two-putted for
par on the final hole. Minutes later, Mallon, the only player
with a chance to force an 18-hole playoff, missed a 20-foot
birdie putt at 18. Mallon finished at 279, a stroke ahead of
King and Bradley.

Although hardly unknown, having won LPGA Rookie of the Year
honors last season, Sorenstam struck some observers as
unknowable. "Sweet and shy," television's Judy Rankin told
viewers, "a bit of a loner." Even Sorenstam's fiance,
golf-equipment rep David Esch, admitted he didn't know who
Annika was when they met two years ago.

On Sunday afternoon, after listening to Mallon deliver a
gracious runner-up speech to those assembled at the 18th green,
USGA vice president Judy Bell said, "This concludes the 50th
U.S. Women's Open," before another official could remind her
that Sorenstam had not had a chance to speak. "Oh, oh, Annika,"
Bell blurted. "I'm sorry!"

Sorenstam shrugged. Having beaten the best, she knew she
wouldn't be overlooked much longer.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Even when she appeared trapped, the disciplined Sorenstam remained focused. [Annika Sorenstam]