Lori Kane, acting as Annika Sorenstam's unofficial press agent,
wanted to know what it takes to get some attention for women's
golf. "I know that here in America everyone is going crazy over
March Madness," Kane said on the eve of last week's Nabisco
Championship, the first major tournament of the LPGA season. "But
I don't care. If you shoot 59, that is just a great score." Kane
leaned forward and dropped the dime: "I tell you, when those guys
on ESPN gather to talk about the important sports, they neglect
The piggish male print journalists relaxed in their chairs.
Apparently it was not them, but the piggish male talking heads
who had ignored Sorenstam's recent accomplishments. After two
second-place finishes on the LPGA tour she followed with two
consecutive wins--the most recent of which featured a
second-round 59, the lowest tournament round in the history of
women's golf, plus LPGA records for low 36-hole, 54-hole and
72-hole totals. Anyway, Kane's J'accuse was so shopworn that it
sounded like something recorded on vinyl by, say, Aretha Franklin.
So it was up to Sorenstam herself to demonstrate what it takes
to get our attention. She did that very nicely at the Nabisco,
winning her third straight tournament, her third major and the
26th title of her 7 1/2-year pro career. Then, as if defying
SportsCenter to ignore her, Sorenstam made the traditional dive
into the water by the 18th green, garnering a record number of
style points with a headfirst leap. Granted, she was
encouraged--but there was none of that wade-in-the-water
tentativeness that Karrie Webb displayed last year when she took
the winner's plunge.
Not that style means that much to Sorenstam. Golf historians will
little note nor long remember the three shots she hit to reach
the green of the par-5 finishing hole on Sunday--driver to the
middle of the fairway, three-wood to the middle of the lay-up
area, sand wedge to the middle of the green--because that's how
she has hit almost every shot she has attempted since Dick Clark
ushered in 2001. "She's played spotless golf," said two-time
Nabisco champion Dottie Pepper, one of five players to tie for
second, three shots behind Sorenstam.
That's spotless as in 69 under par for the year. "It's been a
dream come true," Sorenstam said after her victory, looking tiny
in the champion's white bathrobe. "I don't know why all this is
happening to me."
She was being ingenuous, but everyone else in women's golf knows
why it's happening to her. It's because the amiable-looking Swede
does 750 sit-ups a day to strengthen her abs. It's because she
enters enough personal performance data in her laptop to keep a
stats freak happy for life. It's because she practiced her
putting all winter. It's because she has seethed for the last two
years as her friend Webb won the big trophies and the big checks
and got touted as the LPGA's answer to Tiger Woods. (Maybe
seethed is the wrong word, but in a television interview last
week Sorenstam said, "I've been Number 1, and I know how it
feels. I want to do it again." If you were Webb, wouldn't you be
wondering if your little friend with the bangs was plotting to
send you back to Queensland in a crate labeled ACME?)
Furthermore, you don't win majors by dreaming about them. The
Nabisco Championship, after all, is a touchstone of women's golf.
It has been played on the Mission Hills Country Club Tournament
Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for 29 years, the longest
tenancy on the LPGA tour. The ducks waddle around, and a tree
gets trimmed here and there, but the event has the timeless
quality of the Masters. Shuffle the years and you turn up the
same neat tableau of desert sunshine and mountain shadows, with
only an occasional name change (from Colgate Dinah Shore to
Nabisco Dinah Shore to Nabisco) and one sea change (winners
jumping into the water beside the 18th green, starting with Amy
Alcott in 1988) to break the pattern.
This year's Nabisco was different, however, thanks to Sorenstam.
Still tingling from the week before, when she shot her 59 at the
Standard Register Ping in Phoenix, Sorenstam signed more
autographs in an hour than she usually signs in a week. "I was
overwhelmed," she said. "I am very happy, but it took so much out
If Sorenstam seemed dazed by the 59 hoopla and weary from winning
in consecutive weeks for the second time in her career, those
around her were energized. "Whenever barriers are broken, it has
to be a validation of how great our players are," said LPGA
commissioner Ty Votaw. "It's an indicium of skill." For an
indicium of clout, Votaw's players had the cover of Golf World to
gloat over--it showed Annika holding up a golf ball with 59
written on it.
The fairways and greens at a major championship aren't set up for
low scoring, so no one expected Sorenstam, or anyone else, to
shoot 59 at Mission Hills--or even 63, the tournament record set
by Mary Beth Zimmerman in 1997. Still, many were surprised when a
two-under-par 70 was good enough to get a share of the
opening-day lead. Five players--Penny Hammel, 1998 Nabisco
champion Pat Hurst, Juli Inkster, Carin Koch and Liselotte
Neumann--were bunched at the top; it was the highest first-round
leading score at the Nabisco since 1978. "It's playing really
tough out there," said Koch, who is as Swedish as Sorenstam but
not as driven. "If you miss the fairway, you almost have no shot
to get it to the green."
Sorenstam, who hadn't won a major since taking back-to-back U.S.
Opens, in 1995 and '96, adjusted beautifully, keeping her drives
in the fairways and hitting her approach shots to the fat side of
the greens. Did she make many putts? No. But she didn't make many
mistakes either. She opened with rounds of 72 and 70, and on
Saturday, when she shot another 70 to draw within a stroke of
third-round leader Rachel Teske, Sorenstam hit all 18 greens in
With the greens firm and birdies hard to come by, the field
clumped up like a crowd on a mountain ledge. The fun was in
waiting for someone to fall off. That happened most spectacularly
to Se Ri Pak, who zoomed into the lead at six under on Saturday
afternoon, only to tumble horribly with a double bogey, bogey,
bogey, bogey finish. Others, such as second-round leader Hurst,
teetered at the edge; she reached two of the four par-5s in two
on Saturday but three-putted both times. She then three-putted
number 14 and hurled her ball into the pond. "That's when the
frustration maxed out," Hurst said, laughing about it.
"Everything was going way by the hole. I'd try to adjust, and
then it would be way short." Hurst's troubles notwithstanding,
she finished the day at four under and played with Pepper and
Inkster in the next-to-last group on Sunday.
As is often the case, the contenders had to play around the
craters and shell holes of past battles among themselves. Hurst
had to be thinking of the week before, at Moon Valley Country
Club, when even after matching her career-best with a 64 in the
second round, she trailed the surging Sorenstam by nine shots.
Sorenstam had to remember that the first playoff loss of her
career was to Teske (then known by her maiden name, Hetherington)
in the 1998 First Union Betsy King Classic. Webb, meanwhile, was
never far off the lead. The LPGA Player of the Year each of the
past two years tied for second with a final-round 69, and on the
back nine missed a birdie putt to tie Sorenstam for the lead.
In recent years Sorenstam might have buckled. Tied for the lead
at last year's du Maurier going into the final round, for
instance, she let a major get away by putting timidly. ("When I
get nervous, I get tentative," she says. "I lose my feel.") Other
times, as when she missed the 36-hole cut straining to win her
third straight U.S. Women's Open title, in 1997, Sorenstam has
pressed too hard, trying, as she likes to say, "to win the
tournament on Thursday."
That would not be the case this time. Looking cool in Sunday's
90[Degrees] heat, Sorenstam followed her game plan with ruthless
self-discipline. Her only missteps were a bogey on the 3rd hole,
where her drive caught the right rough and she had to pitch back
to safety, and a bogey on the 12th, where she three-putted from
30 feet. Otherwise, it was fairways and greens, fairways and
greens, a Sorenstam soliloquy with a foreseeable curtain
line--something about a dream come true. "I don't think I've
ever been so patient," she would say.
After sinking an 11-foot birdie putt on number 13, Sorenstam
stood at six under. That's when her pursuers, bunched two shots
back, began to realize the futility of their efforts. Hurst
pounded the ground with her club when she couldn't reach the 15th
green from the left rough. Pepper angrily swatted the air with
her sand wedge on the same hole when she failed to get close with
a difficult pitch. "When Annika's on, you just have to play
better than her," Teske said with unassailable logic. "That's
hard to do."
So there, in the end, was Ms. 59, commanding everyone's attention
by rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole--an
unnecessary but crowd-pleasing flourish. Her sister, Charlotta,
three years older and an LPGA player herself, ran onto the green
and squirted Annika with champagne. Then, either because voices
in the gallery were yelling, "Water!" or because her husband,
David Esch, and Charlotta were stalking her with the champion's
bathrobe held open, Annika dived into the drink. "I'm so happy,"
she burbled, dripping pond water and coughing daintily on the
back of her hand. (Does Nabisco have an insurance policy to cover
duckborne infectious diseases?) If she didn't look like the
hottest golfer on the planet, Sorenstam had at least played like
As the sun dropped behind the San Jacinto mountains, someone
asked Sorenstam why it had taken her five years to win her third
major, even as she piled up 21 LPGA victories in between. "I
struggled," she said, "because I wanted it so badly." Now she is
winning for the same reason, and it matters not a jot whether we,
they, the Turks, the Eskimos, or the guys at ESPN give her her
due. For Sorenstam, it's just nice to be No. 1 again.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY J.D. CUBAN PERFECT 10 After a methodical performance on the course, Sorenstam went for broke in the traditional winner's dive into the pond at 18.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK TURNABOUT Teske beat Sorenstam in a playoff in '98, but she couldn't make a one-shot lead over the Swede stand up on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK
"When Annika's on, you just have to play better than her," said
Teske, with unassailable logic. "That's hard to do."
"I don't think I've ever been so patient," Sorenstam said after
her 26th LPGA victory.