Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Sorenstam sees Colonial as learning experience

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

WEST NYACK, N.Y. - The complete repertoire was on display at Manhattan Woods Golf Club Monday. Annika Sorenstam landed balls at the feet of her husband 100 yards away. She sent drives sailing into the far reaches of the driving range. At one point, she took a full swing out of the bunker and flopped a ball just over the head of an apprehensive volunteer.

If shot by shot is how Sorenstam has carved out a reputation as perhaps the greatest golfer in LPGA history, it is also how she intends to negotiate the most daunting challenge of her career next month at the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Great Annika experiment is still more than three weeks away, and already the 32-year-old Sorenstam has been asked to delve into the minutia of Colonial week - where she will change, who she will play with, how she will feel when she first takes her place on a driving range full of men.

No detail seems irrelevant in anticipation of what might be the most compelling golf story of a generation: a woman playing in a PGA Tour event for the first time in 53 years. It will be a landmark event, yet Sorenstam anticipates it will be less of a conquest and more of an education.

"I want to play under tough conditions," said Sorenstam, who was in town for a Mercedes-Benz Women's Golf Day clinic at Manhattan Woods. "I want to test myself. This is going to be a learning experience for me - a learning week. And I'm never going to forget it."

Though she has mostly steered clear of announcing finite goals for the week, Sorenstam thinks she can shoot around even par if weather permits. Depending on who you ask, that's either reasonable or out of reach. On Sorenstam's side is the fact that the 7,080-yard Colonial Country Club is one of the shorter venues on the PGA Tour. Not only that, but her current driving average of 280.4 yards is actually higher than that of defending Colonial champion Nick Price (278.7 yards).

But numbers can be misleading. For one thing, Sorenstam doesn't spin the ball as much as the average PGA Tour player, meaning she won't be able to stop her shots as precisely on Colonial's small greens.

"I know I don't spin the ball as much on my approach shots," she said. "But I believe this particular course suits my game because I can play my game. Unlike 95 percent of the courses, where strength and power is so important, this course is more about hitting good shots. This is a course management golf course. You just don't stand on every tee with a driver and hit it hard."

It's true, with its assortment of doglegs, Colonial does place an emphasis on both course management and a player's short game. But Sorenstam's greatest asset has always been her consistency. On the LPGA Tour, she hits more fairways and more greens than most players, and as a result, she gives herself more birdie chances. Odds are she won't have that sort of advantage against the men, which is one reason the Colonial will likely be her only PGA Tour event.

"I want to win tournaments," she said. "I don't have a chance on 95 percent of these courses. That's not fun for me. There are always going to be guys who are stronger and longer."

It is this realization that has everyone from Sorenstam to her husband David Esch to LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw saying the emphasis at Colonial should be more on Sorenstam merely attempting to test herself.

"A satisfactory goal is to show up and handle everything well. If she feels like she gave it her all, that will be enough," Esch said. "What the result will be is up in the air. I know personally it's not going to be dead last."

Either way, Sorenstam will head back to the LPGA, where she admits not all of her fellow competitors have embraced her decision.

"I think that's probably accurate," Votaw said. "I think for the most part they've been positive. But I think if you asked them, 'Would you do this? Would you put yourself on the line?' They'd say no and that may have been perceived as negative. I also think there's probably some Jan Bradys out there. 'Annika, Annika, Annika,' is like "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.' But it's a very small reaction."

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