Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Beating men at their game
By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist
WEST NYACK, N.Y. - The dreamer in Annika Sorenstam says she can beat the men. The realist in her says she has no idea if she can even make the cut when she plays the Colonial next month, becoming the first woman in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias in 1945.
I'm pulling for the dreamer.
Imagine this slender Swede, all 5-foot-6 of her, driving past some of the men, outthinking others, holding the trophy at the end. Oh, the shattered egos, the jokes, the revolutions in the country clubs and board rooms.
Martha Burk's assault on the grass ceiling at Augusta National would be minuscule compared to what Sorenstam could do by beating the men at their own game from their own tees. It would be bigger than Billie Jean King over Bobby Riggs.
No, it won't happen, but you've got to admire Sorenstam's spunk, her polite rebuff of chauvinists who want to see her crushed for intruding on the men's playground.
"Arnold Palmer told me to think about it," she said with a laugh Monday when asked if anybody has tried to talk her out of playing. "I told him I thought about it. He said it's a word from an old man. Obviously, I respect Mr. Palmer. It's funny how everyone has an opinion."
Nancy Lopez called her and wished her good luck.
"She said that she wishes she had this chance 25 years ago," Sorenstam said.
Sorenstam, who spoke after an exhibition at the Manhattan Woods Golf Club, knows she's going into hostile territory, wearing pants instead of shorts, changing in a locker room of her own.
"I don't know if I get my own Porta-loos where it says, 'Men only' and 'Annika only,' she said.
Critics have dissected her game and suggested she'll be severely embarrassed. She doesn't hit long enough - though her average of 275 yards on drives this year is better than a lot of men. She doesn't have the power to spin the ball like the men on approach shots - though maybe she won't have to the way she plays. She leaves long putts short, flubs chips, gets jumpy under pressure, wild in the wind. Gosh, how did she ever win 43 tournaments with flaws like that? Of course, they weren't against men.
"I don't think I'd be a professional today if I was afraid of embarrassing myself," she said. "If I was afraid of that I never would have left Sweden."
She played a practice round on the Colonial course in Texas in early March with David Frost. The grass was brown, the rough hadn't grown out and she didn't keep score, but she got a feel for the course's length. She came away thinking she could play par there, and would be pleased with that no matter what the men do.
"If I'm playing well, it should be a piece of cake," she said.
She's not bulking up or changing her game. Her plan is to take what the course offers.
"On 95 percent of the courses, where strength and power are so important, I don't have a chance," she said. "This course is more about placing the shot where you have the best opportunity to approach the green. This is a course-management type of golf course. This is not where you stand with a driver on every tee and just hit it hard."
She figures she'll take the driver out of her bag only seven or eight times a round, looking to put the ball comfortably in the doglegs and hit approach shots from there. She won't be tempted, like some of the men, to cut corners and play more aggressively.
"I can plod along pretty good," she said. "I'll just be playing in the short grass all day long. That's my plan."
The only problem she sees is that the pressure, the crowds, all the attention will get to her.
"I'm not worried about my golf game, but I'm worried about whether I can keep my mind straight," she said. "This is something that I've never experienced. It's a total test."
And for her, that's all it really is - a personal challenge, not a stand for women or an assault on the men's game.
"But of course if this helps women's sports, I'd be happy," she said, adding that she plans to call Billie Jean King, who has wanted to talk to her. "I don't want it to reflect (on women) if I don't do well. It will reflect on me. I'll be upset with myself and I'll be going straight to the practice tee or whatever I need to work on."
This is a one-and-done deal for Sorenstam, with no other men's tournaments on her agenda. Someday, though, she thinks a woman golfer could truly give the men a run for their money.
"There may be just one, and that could be 20 years from now," she said. "One day there might come a lady that's 6-foot-something and hits 300 and wins every (women's) tournament by 10. I could see her wanting to try a tougher challenge. Who knows if that day will come?
"Michelle Wie could be the one maybe. She's already 6-foot and hitting it 290. She is determined to play on the PGA Tour. That's the kind of attitude you need to have."
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
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