Sweet 'n Low A grueling off-season paid dividends for Annika Sorenstam, who shot a historic 59 in a win in Phoenix

March 26, 2001

When Annika Sorenstam became the first woman to break 60 in
competition, shooting a 13-birdie, zero-bogey 59 during the
second round of last week's Standard Register Ping in Phoenix, it
was less a fluke than it was the inevitable result of this
obsessive Swede's quest for perfection. In 2000 Sorenstam won
five tournaments and finished second on the money list--and was so
distraught she put herself through the most grueling off-season
of her life. Sorenstam is not content to be merely great. Yes, at
age 30 she has already qualified for the Hall of Fame, but over
the past two years the balance of power on the LPGA tour has
shifted to her archrival, Karrie Webb. "Annika is obsessed with
being Number 1 again," says her husband, David Esch.

Beginning in December, Sorenstam set out to strengthen her body
and fortify her putting, which has always been the weakest part
of her game. (She was 122nd in putting average in 2000.) She
hired a personal trainer and five days a week performed intensive
weight and cardiovascular workouts, along with stretching,
kickboxing and taekwondo. At a recently acquired third house, at
Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif., Sorenstam set up shop
on two practice greens, working on a revamped stroke that has her
hands and ball position more forward and her setup more square.
In a typical session she would strike 100 putts in a row using
only her right hand, force herself to make 50 straight
three-footers, then line up two dozen 30-footers. If she failed
to lag one within a putter's length of the hole, the drill would
start anew.

Last month in Hawaii, Sorenstam opened her season with a pair of
runner-up finishes and felt a surge of confidence on the greens.
Two weeks ago at the Welch's/Circle K in Tucson, she stormed to
the 24th victory of her career, making only one bogey and going
23 under, tying the second-best four-round score in relation to
par in LPGA history. Nobody could have guessed that Sorenstam was
only warming up.

She opened in Phoenix with a smooth 65, leaving her two strokes
back of Kris Tschetter, who was in with a new course record. The
Moon Valley Country Club had been redesigned for this tournament,
ostensibly to make it tougher. It was stretched from 6,435 yards
to 6,459 while its greens were given added undulation and its
bunkers steeper faces. But last Friday dawned, and it was dome
golf: temperatures in the mid-70s, with not a breath of wind.
Sorenstam was paired with her younger sister, Charlotta, the
defending champ, and Meg Mallon. Beginning her round on the back
nine, Annika opened with a pair of textbook birdies. The first
signs that strange things were afoot came at the tough par-4
12th. After pulling her approach 30 feet left of the flag,
Sorenstam banged in a lightning-fast, hard-breaking putt that
traversed two tiers.

She followed with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 13th, then
buried birdie putts of four, 11, 10 and 18 feet on the ensuing
four holes. The streak of eight consecutive birdies, one shy of
Beth Daniel's LPGA record, ended on the 9th hole, when Sorenstam
two-putted from 30 feet to finish her first nine in 28. "I must
admit, making that par was a relief," Sorenstam said later. "The
pressure was building up so much."

She tore off four more birdies to begin her second nine,
highlighted by a curling 22-foot putt on number 2. Twelve under
par through 13 holes, Sorenstam needed only to play the remaining
five holes in minus 1 to reach the magic number of 59. Yet even
as her gallery swelled, an eerie calm prevailed. "It was like a
pitcher with a no-hitter," said Mallon. "Nobody said a word so
they wouldn't mess it up for her."

Sorenstam parred 5, 6 and 7, ratcheting up the pressure. At 476
yards the 8th hole is by far the shortest and easiest par-5 on
the course. Sorenstam crushed her drive and then reached the
green with a seven-wood. From 25 feet she coolly lagged to less
than two. She had her birdie.

On her final green--following yet another lovely approach, to 20
feet--Sorenstam made a bold bid for a 58, burning the edge of the
cup, and after tapping in for par, she joyously jumped into the
arms of her caddie, Terry McNamara, looking like Yogi Berra to
his Don Larsen.

"I'm absolutely overwhelmed," a breathless Sorenstam said moments
later. "I can't believe what I just did."

What she did was play arguably the best round in golf history,
even when compared with the six 59s that have been shot in men's
competition, beginning with Al Geiberger's in 1977, a feat which
earned him the nickname Mr. 59. Sorenstam benefited from no lucky
shots or outrageous turns of fortune. She hit all 18 greens, and
missed only one fairway--the 6th, and that one by less than a
yard. "It was an easy 59," said Mallon. "She didn't even scare
bogey out there."

The hard part was coming back the next day. The post-59 hangover
can be a doozy. David Gossett followed his 59 at the 2000 Q
School with a 74, as did Notah Begay, at the 1998 Nike Dominion
Open. On Saturday, Sorenstam was introduced on the first tee as
Mrs. 59, but it took all of her determination to come within 10
strokes of her new sobriquet. She three-putted the 18th hole for
a 69, which left her with only a three-stroke lead over Se Ri
Pak, who had shot a 63 on the heels of a 65-68 start. No one else
was within nine strokes.

On Sunday, Pak, rejuvenated after a mediocre 2000, was
relentless, birdieing five of the first eight holes to close the
gap to a stroke. With a birdie at the 14th, she finally forged a
tie, but Sorenstam secured the victory with an 18-footer for
birdie at 16. The putt pushed her to 27 under, yet another LPGA
record. "Now I see what I can shoot when the putts go in," said
Sorenstam.

The real test for Sorenstam's new putting stroke will be how she
fares on major championship greens, beginning this week at the
Nabisco Championship. Since winning back-to-back U.S. Opens in
1995 and '96, Sorenstam has been shut out in the majors, while
Webb has dominated, taking last year's Nabisco by 10 strokes and
Open by five. "I want to win the Grand Slam," Sorenstam says,
"but more than anything, I want to play up to my potential."

We'll have to wait to see if Sorenstam can join Bobby Jones in
the record books. After her magical week at Moon Valley, one
thing is certain: She already has a chapter all to herself.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FIALA/AP COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT SCHUMACHER/ARIZONA REPUBLIC

Sorenstam hit all 18 greens and missed only one fairway, the
6th, by less than a yard. "It was an easy 59," said Mallon.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)