Fighting For Five The LPGA messed up by not letting Annika Sorenstam go the distance

April 29, 2001

On Monday morning history looked like Annika Sorenstam's bed at
the Reno Hilton--unmade. Sorenstam had to get up before dawn for
an interview, via satellite, with Bryant Gumbel on CBS's The
Early Show at 4:41 a.m. Pacific time, roughly 12 hours after her
remarkable LPGA tour winning streak had come to an end when South
Korea's Se Ri Pak won the Longs Drugs Challenge in Sacramento.

Among mere mortals Sorenstam is the hottest golfer on the planet.
She's the first woman to shoot a 59, and last week at the Twelve
Bridges Golf Club she was gunning for her fifth straight victory,
which would've tied the LPGA record set by Nancy Lopez in 1978.
Sorenstam, though, was never in contention and finished 43rd.

Still, her run at Lopez's record had jumped the LPGA to the front
page, a giant leap for women's golf, and pushed you-know-who out
of the public's consciousness, if only for a week or so. When
Lopez was burning it up, she appeared on television with Johnny
Carson, Merv Griffin, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore. Sorenstam's gig
on Monday morning--the kind of publicity that comes the LPGA's way
about as often as Halley's Comet--affirmed that the tour again had
some sizzle.

That's what makes the LPGA's decision to shorten the Longs Drugs
Challenge from 72 to 54 holes, thereby diminishing Sorenstam's
chances of catching Lopez, so unfathomable. Here was an
opportunity bounding toward the tour on a big hop, but the LPGA
morphed into Bill Buckner and let it dribble into rightfield.

Last Thursday, Sorenstam opened the tournament with a 73, putting
her seven strokes behind Pak. With three rounds to play that's a
manageable deficit. But when the tour's brass truncated the event
to 54 holes after an all-day downpour on Friday, Sorenstam's task
became much more difficult, a fact that was lost on no one
except, it seems, the LPGA. The event's sponsor understood the
magic of the moment. "This train only stops at the station once
in my lifetime," said Brian Flajole, the tournament director.
"What would major league baseball do if Mark McGwire was going
for the home run record and the last game of the season got
rained out? We wanted to play 72 holes."

What was the tour thinking? LPGA official Jim Haley told The
Sacramento Bee that there wasn't enough time to get the 81
players who made the cut through 36 holes in a day, which meant
there would be--horrors!--a Monday finish, and, "Who's going to
come out on Monday to watch?" he said. If Sorenstam had gotten
into contention, Jim, the entire world, that's who. Besides, does
the LPGA have so many potential sponsors waiting in the wings
that it can ignore a reasonable request from one of them? Funny,
I could've sworn the tour had a two-week hole in its schedule
this month.

The idea that 81 golfers can't play 36 holes in a day is also
questionable. The PGA Tour got 52 players through 36 holes at the
BellSouth Classic on the Sunday before the Masters, even though
the TPC at Sugarloaf is one of the longest, toughest walks on
Tour, and cold, gusty winds slowed play. On the LPGA, though,
getting in 72 holes clearly isn't a priority, perhaps because
more than a third of its tournaments go only 54 holes.

You can look at Sorenstam's scores and deduce that going the
extra yard would've been pointless, that she wasn't playing well
enough to win anyway. You can look at the putting stats and see
that she ranked 81st--dead last--for the week. What the numbers
don't tell you is that with one fewer round to play, Sorenstam
altered her style of play. "Looking back, I felt as if time was
running out even though I had two more days," Sorenstam said on
Monday. "I started pushing and pushing, which is not my game.
That's my own fault. I learned a lesson: That's not the way to
play."

An informal survey of the players in Sacramento found little
support for either a double round on the weekend or a Monday
finish. "You can't make rulings for one person," said Juli
Inkster. Helen Alfredsson was more direct. "This is not Annika's
tour," she said. "We've played 54 holes before and there wasn't
any argument. If it weren't for her, we wouldn't be talking about
this."

Alfredsson was right, but imagine what we would be talking about
if a different decision had been made, and Sorenstam had had the
chance to hole a few putts.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK

Said Sorenstam, "I felt as if time was running out even though I
had two more days. I started pushing and pushing."

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)