You Go, Girl! Meanwhile, back on the LPGA tour, fans and players had one eye on Annika and the other on the Corning Classic

June 01, 2003

The last time things went a little crazy in Corning, N.Y., was on
July 31, 1912. At the stroke of midnight, the clock tower in
Centerway Square began to chime, and on and on it chimed. Scores
of Corningites gathered on Market Street, fearful for whom--or
what--the bell tolled. When the pealing finally stopped 17
minutes and countless rings later, the crowd erupted in relieved
applause and cheers.

Last Thursday morning, during the opening round of the LPGA
Corning Classic, a similar sense of apprehension swept over the
hundred or so spectators assembled near the 18th green. The
nearby Jumbotron showed Annika Sorenstam teeing off 1,300 miles
away at the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. The
first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour addressed the
ball, slowly pulled back her driver and took a mighty rip that
produced a lovely, lofting shot right down the middle of the
fairway. As the ball hung in the air for six seconds and rolled
for five more, finally coming to rest 243 yards away, the gallery
erupted in relieved applause and cheers.

Following two tournaments simultaneously at Corning Country Club
bordered on the schizophrenic. At her postround press conference
on Thursday, Lorie Kane said, "Pardon me for having one eye on
the TV. A good friend is playing very good golf at another
course." (Kane would finish second in the Classic, four shots
behind the winner, Juli Inkster.) The Woman Who Wasn't There was
everywhere--on the big screen at 18 and on small screens in the
clubhouse, the locker room and the LPGA fitness van. "That's our
girl," said two-time Classic champ Rosie Jones as she passed a
fan wearing a GO ANNIKA button. "We're all pulling for her."

To ensure that she wouldn't miss Sorenstam's first few holes,
Jones got to the fitness van hours before her 12:10 tee time.
"Everybody inside was really excited," she said. "We were talking
about Annika and watching her, and when she birdied her fourth,
the whole van bounced on its wheels."

In golf carts, on the driving range, at ice-cream stands, the Day
One chatter was all Annika, all the time. Would Ms. 59 make or
ms. the cut? "Make it," said second-year pro Hilary Lunke. Then
she hedged a bit. "That is, if she played her normal game in a
vacuum, without all the hype and pressure."

Is the game of the world's greatest woman golfer PGA Tour
caliber? "Absolutely," said Betsy King, the Hall of Famer with
victories at Corning in 1991 and 2000. "If Annika played the
men's Tour for an entire year, she'd do well enough to keep her
card." King's faith in Sorenstam is so unshakable that in April,
during the Takefuji Classic in Las Vegas, she wagered $50 on her.
One bet was that Sorenstam's first two rounds would total less
than 152. Another was that her final score would beat John
Daly's. Alas, Long John didn't show up in Fort Worth.

Nobody seemed startled when Sorenstam shot one-over-par 71 in the
first round, missing only one fairway and putting for birdie on
all 18 holes. "Annika drives the ball this well every week, no
matter what the course," said Jane Geddes, whose last victory was
in 1994, the year Sorenstam joined the LPGA tour. "She was a
little tentative on the greens today and perhaps not as
aggressive as she is on our tour, but overall she was fabulous."

"Annika's performance didn't surprise us," said Meg Mallon, who
won the only LPGA tournament that was ever played at the
Colonial, the 1991 U.S. Women's Open. "She may have surprised the
male 'experts' who suddenly came out of the woodwork."

Rush Limbaugh, the radio pundit who coined the term femi-Nazi,
predicted Sorenstam would break 80 only if saved by her
"beautiful putting stroke." Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
however, and witnesses to Sorenstam's opening round beheld a
sometimes uncomely short game. "It was fun to see experts who had
never walked a fairway with us get it all wrong," said Mallon.

Fears that the media circus in Texas would upstage the Classic's
silver anniversary turned out to be equally groundless. Parking
lots were full, merchandise and concession sales were up, and
demand for tickets was so great that more had to be printed.
"Annika has created lots of publicity for the LPGA," said the
tour's commissioner, Ty Votaw, "and what's good for the LPGA is
ultimately going to be good for the Corning Classic."

The Classic may be thriving, but Corning Inc. continues to
struggle. Over the last two years, revenue for the LPGA's
longest-running tournament sponsor has plummeted more than 50%
and 3,500 employees have been axed. Despite a gloomy economy, the
fiber-optics company bankrolled most of the $1 million purse, and
the entire community got involved.

At the inaugural LPGA Market Street Block Party, Beauregard's
Bakery & Cafe sold dimpled golf ball cookies for a dollar; the
Fieldcrest Cannon outlet marked down golf towels to $2.49; and
hackers played Teenie Greenie Golf on a miniature course designed
by the father of PGA Tour pro Joey Sindelar. "We're deeply
appreciative of community support," Votaw said. That perhaps
explains why the LPGA now requires its players to enter each
event on the schedule at least once every four years. Sorenstam,
who hasn't teed it up in Corning since 1995, promised not only to
show up in 2004 but also to donate half of any money she won at
the Colonial--because she missed the cut, she didn't make
anything--to a fund that aids 11 area hospitals.

Several prominent PGA Tour players were not nearly as charitable
to Sorenstam. Nick Price decried her sponsor's exemption at the
Colonial by saying it "reeks of publicity." Vijay Singh was so
miffed that he vowed not to play if paired with her, said she
"didn't belong" there, hoped she would miss the cut and
ultimately withdrew, citing fatigue.

The LPGA's official response to Price and Singh was not to
respond. "Reasonable minds have differed and so have unreasonable
minds," said Votaw in doublespeak worthy of Professor Irwin
Corey. "Discerning which is which has captured the attention of
the media and fueled the debate about the Colonial. We respect
the reasonable and have no comment on the unreasonable."

When asked about Singh, most LPGA players look at you with all
the warmth of a fox contemplating a chicken coop. Though none
sang Singh's praises, few were willing to express much more
than...disappointment.

"What Vijay said was disappointing," said rookie Georgina
Simpson.

"Very disappointing," said Geddes. "It would have been so easy to
say, 'Hey, what Annika's doing is great,' and then go home and
tell his wife something different."

"I'm a little disappointed," said Karen Stupples, the first-round
Classic leader at eight under par. "Physically, Annika is at a
disadvantage to those guys, so what's the harm?"

"I'm disappointed," said veteran pro Deb Richard. "The world has
come a long way in the last 50 years, and Vijay's comments didn't
reflect that. They were rather narrow."

"It's disappointing," said Val Skinner. "You'd hope any athlete
with a daughter would admire Annika for pushing her talent to the
limit and testing herself against the toughest challenge out
there."

"It's disappointing," echoed Jones after Sorenstam held her own
in the first round. "These men look at Annika as a lesser player,
an undeserving lesser player with no credibility and no chance.
They're scared. They're terrified. They're mortified. Well, she
beat 27 guys today and tomorrow she might beat more."

"It's not disappointing as much as shocking," said Barb Mucha.
"We're all in the golf industry, and you don't really root
against your flesh and blood." Pause. "Hmmm...I guess it is
disappointing."

About the only female pro willing to publicly zing Singh was
19-year-old Christina Kim. "To be honest, I think Vijay is
pigheaded," said the LPGA's youngest player. "We're in the 21st
century, for crissake, and he's afraid Annika might hurt his
manhood! I would call him a chauvinist pig, but I'd rather be
gracious."

Who knows, say the women: With proper care and feeding, wild
boars like Singh and Price may someday be domesticated. "Look at
Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson," said Mallon, referring to the Tour
rookies who played alongside Sorenstam. "They joked around with
Annika, encouraged her, behaved like adults, and now their fans
include 300 LPGA players."

One of them is the LPGA's other Sorenstam, Charlotta, who shies
from the spotlight like that other Swede, Garbo. Annika's kid
sister played every Corning Classic hole in plum-colored glasses,
regardless of whether the sun was out. "Bugs," she explained.
"There are a lot on the course. I wear shades to avoid them."

After her round on Friday, Charlotta stopped by the media room to
watch TV in an empty corner. No doubt, she wanted to be alone.

On screen her sister was trying to stay even and make the cut.
"Yes!" Charlotta whispered when Annika birdied the 2nd hole.
"Yes!" she murmured again when Annika saved a bogey putt on the
5th.

"Oh!" she said when Annika lipped out a 19-footer on 6 to go one
over for the day. "Her chances look pretty good. She's hanging in
there."

But not for long. Twelve holes and three bogeys later, Annika
finished with a 145, missing the cut by four shots. Still, her
score was good enough to beat 11 guys and win King $29 on a $20
bet.

"If a lady is good enough to get an invite or she qualifies, she
should have every right to come here," Annika told the press in
Fort Worth on Friday evening. "This is the Tour for the best
players in the world, and in my case, this is not something I
want to keep pushing."

Kane, the Friday coleader, was profoundly touched by Sorenstam's
drive, her dignity, her desire to play through. "Annika has
raised the bar, and I'm hanging on for dear life," said the
39-year-old Kane. "What she's accomplished is unbelievable.
Anyone who watched her has a deeper appreciation of women's
golf."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [INSIDE COVER] Ms.Hit At Corning, the LPGA Is All for Annika G4 ONE AND OUT Sorenstam said she has no plans to play in another PGA Tour event. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN ROOTING SECTION In the players' locker room at Corning, (from left) Dale Eggeling, Nancy Harvey and Jamie Hullett had three cheers for Sorenstam when she made the early leader board. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN FAMILY MATTERS Before coming in 63rd, Charlotta, who's three years Annika's junior, quietly monitored her sister's progress. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN BIG FINISH Thanks to a closing 10-under 62 on the 6,062-yard course (1,018 yards shorter than Colonial), Inkster finished at 264, shattering the Corning scoring record by four strokes.

"Yes!" Charlotta whispered when Annika birdied the 2nd hole.
"Oh!" she said when Annika lipped out on 6.

Mallon said Barber and Wilson "behaved like adults, and now their
fans include 300 LPGA players."

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)