O.K., folks, you asked for it. Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb,
eyeball-to-eyeball, nose-to-nose (Stop fidgeting, Karrie),
simmering with hatred (Lose the giggle, Annika), breathing fire,
hungry for confrontation (Karrie? Karrie! Look at Annika,
please!), yearning to stand alone on the ramparts of women's
golf (No, Annika, working on your laptop computer won't make it
a better photo).... Uh, take five, girls.
(Whispering) Listen, the other idea you had, the picture with
the boxing gloves? That might be better. Especially if one of
them, Annika or Karrie, accidentally pops the other on the nose.
Because it's going to take a busted capillary to get these two
to buy the idea that they're rivals. I'm like, "Annika, you're
Number 1 on the LPGA money list and Karrie's Number 2, and last
year Karrie won four tournaments and was the leading money
winner and rookie of the year, but you won three tournaments and
your second straight U.S. Women's Open, and she's 22 and you're
only 26, so what do you think of the rivalry?" And she says, "I
just see us as two young players. I enjoy playing with her a lot."
So I go, "Karrie, last year you became the first LPGA player to
win $1 million in one season and people compared you with Tiger
Woods, but last year Annika won her second consecutive Vare
Trophy for lowest scoring average, and this year she won three
tournaments before you won one, and besides, as an Australian
you must resent all those years of Swedish oppression." And she
says, "I think the media has hyped this as more than it really
(Loudly) Relax, girls. Just be a minute!
(Whispering) Here's the thing. Everyone wants to see a dominant
player emerge on the LPGA tour--a headline grabber the way Nancy
Lopez was when she won five straight tournaments in 1978. But if
the LPGA can't have its own Tiger, it will settle for a good
old-time rivalry like Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan-
Byron Nelson. I was talking to David Esch, Annika's husband, and
he said a Sorenstam-Webb rivalry would be fun and "great for the
LPGA." But then he said, "Annika doesn't pay too much attention
to it. It's the training she got in Sweden. She was taught to
play the golf course, not some individual." I mean, Sorenstam's
got this laptop with all her statistics back to '89. She doesn't
get excited unless the scoring-average cell in her database
changes from 70.50 to 70.47.
You think maybe women golfers don't have rivalries? I was
talking to Michelle McGann, who's only 27 herself and has won
six tournaments in two years, and she said, "That's just a
woman's personality--a little more sincere, a little more
caring." She told me about a round she played with Webb a few
weeks ago near Myrtle Beach, S.C. McGann made an eagle at the
10th, and then Webb made six birdies in a row to win the
tournament. And McGann was like, "Hey, congratulations. You're a
great player." A guy would've poured sand in Webb's gas tank.
Anyway, I asked McGann about LPGA rivalries, and she was
stumped. She said, "I can't really think of any. It just seems
like there are more than two people butting heads all the time."
The library's not much help. Rhonda Glenn's The Illustrated
History of Women's Golf says that Glenna Collet and Joyce
Wethered "carried on a great and courteous rivalry for much of
the 1920s." Liz Kahn's The LPGA: The Unauthorized Version points
out that Patty Berg and Betty Hicks weren't always on speaking
terms, and Louise Suggs disliked Babe Zaharias, and that when
Alice Bauer divorced her husband, Robert Hagge, her sister
Marlene immediately married him. But all those players denied
they were rivals.
The only solid-gold, kick-the-tires rivalry--albeit one lacking
personal animosity--that I dug up was the one between the
amateurs JoAnne Gunderson and Anne Quast in the 1950s and '60s.
These two friends from the state of Washington hooked up
numerous times in regional and national events, with the
exuberant, long-hitting Gunderson winning only slightly more
often than the fast-talking, high-strung Quast. But that rivalry
evaporated when Gunderson, now known as JoAnne (Big Momma)
Carner, turned pro in '70. Quast, who upon marrying for the
third time became Anne Sander, won numerous mid-amateur and
senior amateur titles in the '80s.
Obviously, chemistry has a lot to do with rivalries. Palmer and
Gary Player, two men of demonstrable competitiveness, were a
riveting attraction when they went at it hammer and tongs in the
1960s. On the other hand Fred Couples and Davis Love III, two
less fiery guys, couldn't raise a spark with a grinding wheel in
the early '90s. Sorenstam and Webb are like that--celebrity shy.
At practice the other day in Stockbridge, Ga., Webb was seen
kidding around with Kelly Robbins, another superb young player.
Webb would toss a ball in the air and try to whack it with a
wedge just as it hit the ground, and she was whiffing and
blading balls all over the range and having a great time. But
pull her aside for an interview and suddenly the Sandman is
writing her lines.
Another thing. People don't dig a rivalry unless the rivals are
different in some way--young versus old, white hat versus black
hat, grumpy versus genial. With Sorenstam and Webb, it's
sunglasses versus sunglasses. Webb drives the ball farther off
the tee, but we're not talking crowd-gasp length.
So I got both of them together last week at the Sprint
Titleholders Championship in Daytona Beach--Sorenstam finished
second, two shots back of Tammie Green, and Webb tied for
third--and asked them to point out the differences. Karrie said
that Annika's temperament was "a little more even" than hers.
She said, "If I have a bogey or a bad shot, I'm more likely to
Annika looked at her and said, "I think you're more of a gambler
than I am." This, Annika told me, was because Karrie hits the
ball higher. That's why she feels safer attacking pins.
They both looked listless, maybe because it was pouring outside
and they couldn't practice. But I'm thinking it's a breakthrough
when Annika addresses Karrie in the second person.
Karrie then said, "I think Annika's a bit more mechanical. I've
never had to mess much with the swing I grew up with, and I
don't have all the 'language' of the golf swing."
But that was it. To hear them tell it, they're two sides of the
same piece of toast. Which is odd, because they grew up on
opposite sides of the planet. Annika was born in Stockholm and
trained by the Swedish Golf Federation, with an assist from her
parents. That training got her a scholarship at Arizona, where
she was a two-time All-America before quitting school after her
sophomore year to turn pro. In 1993 she was rookie of the year
on the European tour. In '94 she was rookie of the year on the
LPGA tour, and in '95 she broke into the win column with a
victory in the U.S. Women's Open. Last year she won the Open
again. Open courses suit her because she drives the ball
straight and seldom visits the rough. On the personal side, she
has a younger sister named Charlotta who joined the European
tour after winning the '93 NCAA championship as a freshman at
Texas. Charlotta could be this year's LPGA rookie of the year,
but the sisters seem a little distant, possibly because they've
become ... was I about to say rivals? Anyway, get your camera
right up in Annika's face because that's the only way you'll
capture that combination of elfin cuteness and la femme Nikita
(Loudly) What? No, Annika, I was just complaining about "that
(Whispering) Now, Karrie's about as polished as a corduroy ball
gown. She grew up in the farming town of Ayr in northeast
Australia, about a two-hour walk from the Great Barrier Reef.
Her parents are golfers, and she was given a toy club when she
was eight. Later, she learned how to swing a real one from
Kelvin Haller, a neighbor with a low handicap. Haller went on to
be the greenkeeper at the Ayr Golf Club and Webb's full-time
coach. As a result of a stroke in 1990, he's a paraplegic. But
he still coaches Karrie by phone and checks out her swing when
she's in Australia.
Actually, Karrie might be working for one of her parents--her
mom, Evelyn, runs a fast-food business, and her dad, Rob, is a
builder--if she hadn't won a 1991 junior tournament in Australia
sponsored by the Greg Norman Junior Golf Foundation. That year
Norman invited the winners of the boys and girls divisions to
his estate in Hobe Sound, Fla. Karrie impressed Norman, and the
outside world impressed Karrie so much that she returned to
Australia with her horizons broadened. By age 20 she was a
veteran of international amateur competition, but no one
expected her to explode on the pro scene the way she did. She
turned pro in October '94 and won a mini-tour event in the U.S.
and then moved to Europe and won the '95 Women's British Open.
She was named the European tour's rookie of the year--does this
sound like Annika?--and then burst onto the LPGA tour with a
second-place finish in her first event, last year's Tournament
of Champions. Everybody was like, "Wow!"
But Karrie hasn't fit into the LPGA's publicity machine, so the
challenge, as I see it, is simply to make her face recognizable.
(I thought I was being helpful when I suggested she wear one of
those outback hats with the dangling corks.) Anyway, we got the
sunglasses off her nose. Too bad American Express has quit doing
those "Do you know me?" commercials.
Where was I? Oh, yeah--the rivalry. I got to thinking about it,
and I couldn't remember when Annika and Karrie had gone
head-to-head on a Sunday. Most rivalries grow out of some great
match or classic final round. That's why we remember Nicklaus
and Tom Watson, and Hogan and Sam Snead. So I asked Annika and
Karrie if they had anything comparable to point to, and they
each pondered before jointly offering January's Tournament of
Champions in Fort Lauderdale.
"Exciting week," said Annika.
I had to look it up. Karrie, playing like a 10-year veteran,
wound up in Sunday's final threesome with Annika and Barb Mucha.
The kid was even tied for the lead for a few minutes, but Annika
put her away with a final-round 66. "I didn't play my best, but
I didn't play poorly," Karrie told me. "I lost because Annika
slipped it into another gear."
I'm pushing now, because I think I detect some passion in
Karrie's response. I'm like, "Was there a turning point in that
round? A key moment?" And Karrie looked directly at Annika and
blurted, "I know the key moment--when you holed out six putts in
a row. I went, 'Oh, s---!'" And Karrie closed her eyes and
clenched her teeth.
O.K., it wasn't Frazier-Ali. But that's what we're looking for
in this picture--a glimpse of the fire that these two great
players try to keep on ice. Some sense that these two are going
to be the dominant LPGA stars of their generation.
(Loudly) Ready, girls?
Right. From the top. O.K., Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb,
nose-to-nose, eye-to-eye, lips tight as drumheads (Try
squinting, Annika), revenge written on their retinas (Karrie,
give us a snarl), good, much better....
Well, yeah. In a manner of speaking, it is like acting.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK With four wins between them, Sorenstam (left) and Webb have been a pair of aces this season. [Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb face to face holding golf clubs]
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK (LEFT) [Karrie Webb playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Annika Sorenstam playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: GILBERT ROSSI Haller taught Webb to play and still checks her swing when she's home in Ayr. [Kelvin Haller watching Karrie Webb swing golf club]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Eight days after her marriage to Esch, Sorenstam edged Webb in the Tournament of Champions. [David Esch and Annika Sorenstam holding trophy]
TOURNAMENTS/WINS 9/1 10/3
TOP 5/TOP 10 7/8 6/7
MONEY (RANK) $421,484 (2) $524,560 (1)
SCORING AVG. (RANK) 69.70 (1) 70.19 (2)
DRIVING (YARDS) 11th (254.0) 16th (250.3)
All statistics: 1997, through Sunday