Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Annika should set trap to play Tiger

The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News

Tiger Woods could have lugged your grandfather's croquet mallets to the Buick Invitational, carved his Nike swoosh into their handles and used them to play bank shots off his surgically repaired left knee, and still he would have made Phil Mickelson look smaller than a scuffed dimple on a range ball. No, the madness never ends. Golf cannot find a contender who refuses to cower and crumble, on cue, the moment Woods marches toward the first tee like a heavyweight raging toward the center of the ring.

Let's face it: This generation's Ali sure could use his Frazier, and the game's been looking for him in the wrong place. Namely, the men's locker room. For all those who believe Annika Sorenstam is going too far in challenging the PGA Tour boys at the Colonial in May, I say she's not going far enough.

Sorenstam should offer to play Woods head to head, legend to legend, women's tees to men's tees. Perhaps he would be charitable enough to clear a few prime-time hours on Sept. 20, the 30th anniversary of Billie Jean King's victory against Bobby Riggs. Some 50 million people watched King do more for women than Susan B. Anthony ever could simply by smacking around a 55-year-old chauvinist; 50 million might be a conservative viewer estimate for a duel between the immovable Sorenstam and the indomitable Woods.

Sorenstam shouldn't stop at the Colonial, whether she finishes first or finishes Friday afternoon. Woods isn't even expected to show at the Colonial, and neither Tiger nor his gender should escape that easily. You see, women have men right where they want us. Our most dominant athlete happens to play a game that doesn't require a 42-inch vertical leap, a 7-foot, 300-pound body with 2 percent body fat or a talent for throwing a 65-yard spiral while Ray Lewis is making a Happy Meal out of his rib cage.

Without sweating some blindside blitz, Woods stands over a ball and tries to hit it where he's aiming it. Sorenstam does the same. In fact, two years ago, Sorenstam shot 59 in an LPGA event - Woods has never broken 60 on tour - and later announced that her mission is to become the first golfer of either gender to pitch a Don Larsen game.

"My goal is to shoot 54," Sorenstam said. "I think it's very possible."

Now she believes it's possible to compete with men on a course that demands precision, not power. I'm with Mickelson: I believe Sorenstam will make the cut and place somewhere between 20th and 30th. But I don't believe Sorenstam is merely playing to expand her own boundaries as she's claimed. Look around. Title IX is under siege. The LPGA has to market sex appeal. The WUSA is off the radar. The WNBA is desperate enough to sell a team to a casino. Augusta National rocks on as the he-man woman hater's club. Serena and Venus Williams can draw better ratings than Nebraska and Notre Dame, but Wimbledon still can give more prize money to the men.

So like it or not, Sorenstam will play for a greater cause that would be best served with Woods in the house. Woods and his ever-protective representative, IMG, would never embrace such a no-win proposition, not when they prefer their dreadfully safe two-on-two exhibitions nobody cares to watch. But Sorenstam, Woods' former exhibition partner, could force his hand.

She could forget the fact that she shares Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, and remember that Woods turned up the Texas heat by declaring a poor Sorenstam showing in Fort Worth would be "more detrimental than it's going to be any good," his way of saying, "Don't hit it in the pond, lady."

Sorenstam should call out Woods and let public demand do the rest. She could make the concession of playing from the women's tees on a slugger's course - golf is a handicap sport, remember? - and reduce it to a skills contest. Same fairways, same greens, same pin placements. Even your average cigar-chomping, you-da-man-shouting hacker would see the merit in that.

After all, that hacker wants to see competition. With so many men melting under the majesty of Tiger Woods, why shouldn't a female heavyweight try to give him a good fight?

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