It's easy to describe the shoes Annika Sorenstam wore on Easter
Sunday. They were blood-red, high-gloss Nike slip-ons with soft
spikes. The tongues looked like they'd been ripped out of the
mouths of panting cartoon dogs, and the mirror finish suggested
six coats of polyurethane. "I thought my shoes were cool," said
an envious Liselotte Neumann.
It's harder to describe what Sorenstam did in those shoes. Her
four major championship victories have had a methodical quality
to them, as if she were an upholsterer tacking fabric to a
chair. Her win last weekend, her second straight at the Kraft
Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was typical
Sorenstam. She went around the par-72, 6,520-yard Dinah Shore
Tournament course at Mission Hills Country Club in 68 strokes
and zero mistakes. It wasn't only the shoes that made Neumann
envious; it was Sorenstam's high-gloss game. "Annika plays like
that every day, every week," said Neumann, a 35-year-old Swede
who played her best golf only to finish second, a stroke behind
the equally Swedish 31-year-old Sorenstam.
So it comes back to the shoes. Sorenstam seemed to be making a
statement by playing the final round in boats that would make
Elton John frown, shoes that she'd never even worn before
Sunday. Were they victory totems, like Tiger Woods's red shirts?
Were they meant to distract or intimidate archrival Karrie Webb,
who shared the third-round lead with Sorenstam and Neumann? Were
they special? Did they make her more glamorous, like
Cinderella's slippers, or weightless, like the young Michael
"These shoes, I really don't know why I put them on," Sorenstam
said. "I was thinking about changing after the turn because I
became quite distracted. Every time I stood over a putt, I saw
these little red toes, and it made me smile."
April 7, 2002
You can buy that if you want, but everybody knows it's little
red numbers that make Sorenstam, a four-time LPGA Player of the
Year, grin. By vanquishing a strong field in the first major of
the season, she gave notice that 2002 could be a reprise of '01,
when she won eight LPGA events, shot a tour-record 59 in
Phoenix, topped the money list, won the Vare Trophy for low
scoring average and generally left everybody choking on her
dust. This year Sorenstam has already beaten Webb in a playoff
in the Australian Ladies Masters, finished first, second, tied
for seventh and first in four LPGA events and taken a full
stroke lead on runner-up Lori Kane in the Vare standings.
No wonder so many other players wished they were in Sorenstam's
shoes. Rosie Jones, for instance: At the Kraft Nabisco the wiry,
perpetually wound-up 42-year-old Jones did what she has been
doing in majors throughout her 20-year pro career. She scrapped,
scraped and scrambled. She dogged the leaders for 72 holes. She
held the best press conferences. ("Old," she said, when asked
how she thought she was perceived by fans. "Short. Feisty.") And
in the end she wound up where she always winds up: on another
player's heels. "I'm mad!" Jones blurted last week when reminded
that she had a dozen tour wins but only a remarkable 21 top 10
finishes to show for 75 majors. "It's not going to make or break
my career, but [winning one] sure would prove something to
people who maybe don't think I have the game." Jones had the
game, all right, but her final-round 69 in Rancho Mirage left
her tied for third, two strokes behind Sorenstam.
Then you had Lorena Ochoa, the 20-year-old amateur from
Guadalajara, Mexico. Ochoa is just a sophomore at Arizona, and
she has a swing tic--on the downswing it looks as if she is
trying to crush a bug between her right cheek and her
shoulder--but she's having the greatest season in the history of
college golf. Asked Sunday if she thought she could extend her
string of six consecutive college wins through the four events
left on her schedule, including the NCAA championships, she
nodded and said, "Yes, that's my goal." Asked what her goal had
been for the week of the Kraft Nabisco, she added, "To win the
tournament. I always play to win."
Rounds of 75 and 69 earned Ochoa a third-round pairing with
Sorenstam, who had to be impressed with the kid's footwork--and by
the fact that they shot the same score, 71. On Sunday, Ochoa's
aggressive play carried her to within two strokes of the lead
after eight holes, but then she went three over in the next five
holes to fall out of contention. Then she knocked her 137-yard
eight-iron approach at 16 into the hole for an eagle and birdied
the 18th while about 25 relatives from Mexico and the American
Southwest added a little jalapeno to the cheers from the
grandstands. "She's fun to play with," said caddie Colin Cann,
who was carrying for Se Ri Pak. "She's Sergio all over." That's
Sergio as in Garcia, the Spaniard who was a teenager when he
caught the world's attention by challenging Tiger Woods in the
final round of the 1999 PGA Championship.
Ochoa, who's expected to turn pro this summer, studied Sorenstam
and Pak with more than academic interest. "I know I need to work
a lot on my emotions," she said after her roller-coaster 70 in
the final round. "Players who have been here for years know how
to manage them. Me, I'm new. It'll take a little time." Did her
eighth-place finish--the best result by an amateur in the Kraft
Nabisco since Caroline Keggi came in fourth in 1988--make Ochoa
think she was ready to take on the LPGA's best? She smiled and
swung a bottle of water back and forth like a pendulum. "I found
out I can play at the same level," she said. "That's not a big
Sorenstam would have understood. In the late 1980s, when she was
a mere gleam in the eye of the Swedish Golf Federation,
Sorenstam, too, had a terrific player against whom to measure
herself: Liselotte Neumann. "When I grew up, she was the greatest
Swedish player," Sorenstam said on Sunday. "She was huge at
home." Sorenstam was 17 when Neumann, then an LPGA rookie, won
the 1988 U.S. Open at Baltimore Country Club by three strokes
over Patty Sheehan, but Neumann had previously won two Swedish
Amateur titles and several European pro events. "I was a little
girl then," Sorenstam said, "but I realized that I could come
play, which is what I wanted to do some day."
These days, of course, some little girls aren't content to watch
tournaments on TV. This year's Kraft Nabisco featured a
Nickelodeon-style rerun: The Aree and Naree Show, starring the
Wongluekiet twins of Bradenton, Fla.
Would you believe deja vu times two? Other 15-year-olds stand
against the door jamb to have their heights checked; these girls
drive balls down the Mission Hills fairways every spring to
measure their growth as golfers. Aree, for example, could drive
the ball 250 yards in calm conditions when she tied for 10th two
years ago. Last Thursday, needing a par on the par-5 18th hole to
join seven other players in red numbers for the first round, she
smacked her final drive 258 yards into a two-club wind. That was
20 yards past the palm trees at water's edge and a good 30 yards
past the tee shots of her playing partners, Raquel Carriedo and
five-time European Solheim Cupper Catrin Nilsmark. The twins'
coach, Jonathan Yarwood, shook his head in wonder. "Water on the
left, into the wind, trouble everywhere, and she whips out the
driver and hits it with abandon. Youthful innocence, is it? Or
just no fear?"
No fear, that's for sure. Sizing up her second shot, about 260
yards from the hole, with a water hazard fronting the green,
Aree turned to her caddie, Tom Hanson, and said, "You want to go
for it?" Hanson laughed and handed her a three-wood to lay up.
"I've caddied for 13 years," Hanson said later, "and I've never
carried for a better ball striker." Aree's sister, Naree, said
that she'd also improved in the past year, but the gains were
hard to measure--more imaginative shotmaking, a better short
game, an improved awareness of shot trajectory and spin. "I feel
comfortable hitting a fade or a draw now, and I can scramble a
lot better," she said. Aree was low twin, closing at three over
par and in 30th position, while Naree scrambled to an 11-over,
58th-place finish. Asked when they were going to turn pro, Aree
joked, "When I get my braces off."
None of these players--not Jones, Ochoa or the twins; not
Neumann, who hadn't tasted victory since the 1998 Chick-fil-A
Charity Championship; not Webb, who would make only one birdie
on Sunday and fall to seventh; not Cristie Kerr, who tied for
third with a final-round 68, or Akiko Fukushima and Carin Koch,
who fired tournament-best 66s on Sunday to share fifth--expected
Sorenstam to turn the final round into a golf version of The Red
Shoes. But then, they all had their own pedestrian problems,
particularly Neumann, whose driver swing deserted her in the
third round. To recap: Her tee shot on the 1st hole sailed into
the trees on the right; her tee shot on the 2nd hole also sailed
into the trees on the right, passing Rush Limbaugh on the way;
her tee shot on the 3rd hole (Marshal, could you move that nest
of starlings?) sailed in the same direction. "I was spending
more time with the crowd than inside the ropes," she said. "I
couldn't figure out what was going wrong."
So there was Neumann, late Saturday afternoon, on the deserted
left side of the Mission Hills practice tee. With clubs laid on
the ground to check her alignment, she teed up a ball at driver
height and then stuck another tee in the ground a few inches
closer to her target and just outside the target line. ("I felt
as if I wasn't getting through the ball very well," she
explained. "The club face was open and going off to the right.")
If the clubhead didn't clip the 2nd tee on her follow-through,
Neumann could be reasonably certain that her ball would launch in
the right direction. But only reasonably certain. Last year she
finished 124th on the tour in driving distance and 136th in
driving accuracy--lousy for a player with 12 LPGA wins and six
Solheim Cup appearances.
The range drill helped Neumann, and a call later that evening to
her swing coach, Glenn Dougherty, helped even more. "He thought I
looked really tense," she said, "and he advised me to hold the
club with a lighter grip." Neumann's heart was still in her
throat when she teed off the next morning under a warm desert
sun, but she breathed a little easier when she found the fairway
on the 1st hole, and again on the 2nd hole and again on the 3rd,
where she made birdie and took a short-lived lead at five under.
But Sorenstam--well, she had the red shoes, not to mention the
little black anklet socks, which lent her wardrobe a certain Red
Baron insouciance. She birdied the 5th and 6th holes to take sole
possession of first. After that it was up to the others to catch
her. None could. Neumann had a 15-foot birdie putt from the
fringe on the final hole to force a playoff, but her ball slid
two feet by. "She kept pushing me, which is what I needed today,"
said Sorenstam, who had already two-putted from 18 feet for her
par and a total of 280.
The bogey-free final round gave Sorenstam her 33rd LPGA win, all
since 1995, and a $1 million lead over Webb on the career money
list. If Sorenstam, whose winnings now total $8.8 million, was to
be faulted, it was only for her anemic version of the traditional
victory plunge at 18. Instead of diving, as she did last year,
Sorenstam gingerly went into the water as if she were stepping
into a hot tub, accompanied by her caddie, Terry McNamara, and
his four-year-old daughter, Reilly.
The shoes? They got very wet, but Sorenstam kept them on as she
wandered around in the champion's white bathrobe. They looked
like big cherry Life Savers with leather soles.
"I was spending more time with the crowd than inside the ropes,"
Neumann said. "I couldn't figure out what was wrong."
"Winning a major sure would prove something to people who maybe
don't think I have the game," said Jones.
Did the shoes make Sorenstam more glamorous, like Cinderella's
slippers, or weightless, like Jordan's sneakers?