The putt bent and bowed and broke left as if guided by divine providence. It seemed to start near Plymouth Rock, circle the Golden Gate Bridge and arrive in the cup by way of the Cape of Good Hope. On Sunday at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway Township, N.J., Annika Sorenstam's final shot--an uphill 40-footer for eagle--was the most miraculous stroke of what looks to be the most miraculous year of a most miraculous career.
In shooting a 17-under-par 196, Sorenstam not only won the ShopRite by four strokes but also put up a lower score (67, 65, 64) every day and seemed increasingly invincible as a result. The 34-year-old from Sweden now has 11 straight rounds in the 60s, tying the LPGA record she set in 2002, the year she won an unprecedented 11 tournaments. She has five victories in seven starts this year and 13 in the 25 LPGA events she has played since the beginning of '04. "Annika is the world's most dominating athlete," said Juli Inkster, the runner-up at the ShopRite. "She gives LPGA events credibility: They either have her or they don't."
Sorenstam's goal this year is to become the only woman ever to complete a Grand Slam, a quest that would climax next month with the Women's British Open at Royal Birkdale, in Southport, England. Having already won the first of this year's majors, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in March, she heads into this week's LPGA Championship in Havre de Grace, Md., with an almost-preternatural confidence. "I'm hitting it well and putting very well," she says. "If you look at it that way, I'm prepared. I'm ready to go." Her form suggests that the rest of the field at the Bulle Rock Golf Course will be playing for second place.
In the Age of Annika, women's golf has become a stealth sport. Fellow players try to sneak out in front of her on the leader board or creep up behind her. What they can seldom do is keep pace with her. At the ShopRite, Sorenstam withstood a plague of gusty rain, a blight of gnats and withering attacks by a Hall of Famer (Inkster) and a veteran pro (Laura Davies) who is just shy of qualifying for a Hall pass of her own. On opening day Inkster, the winner of the ShopRite in 1986 and '88, met the downpour clubhead-on ("I could see the greens growing before my eyes," she said) and splashed to a six-under 65. A two-time Classic winner herself, Sorenstam started slowly and was one over after the front nine, but she scorched the final holes in a five-under 30 that left her two strokes back.
Sorenstam pulled even with Inkster on Saturday, and they ended the day tied. She was less concerned with Inkster's matchless iron play than with the gnats, which--despite the heat--she tried to fend off by wearing a long-sleeved sweater. "I didn't take it off because I only had on a tank top," she explained. "It didn't look too good without any logos on it." While Sorenstam swatted, Davies stormed to within a stroke of the lead with a tournament-record nine-under-par 62. Still, the hard-charging Englishwoman wasn't sanguine about her chances. "You can't put pressure on Annika," said Davies, winless on the Tour since 2001. "She knows what to do and how to win."
To be locked in a showdown with Sorenstam is to be largely without hope. She began Sunday's round having won the last five tournaments in which she led or shared the lead entering the final round. After spotting Inkster and Davies the lead, she overtook them with subtle verve, chilling intensity and five birdies. Of her rousing eagle finish, she said simply, "I pick a club, I hit the ball, I trust the decisions I make."
Golf to Sorenstam is a cool activity, logical, rational, filled with precision. Her game has been carefully calibrated, meticulously orchestrated. "She doesn't make any mistakes," Inkster says. "She doesn't have many off days. She doesn't struggle much. But she's beatable."
Just not at the moment. ‚ñ†
LPGA TOUR MIDSEASON REPORT
Paula Creamer's 18-foot putt to win the Sybase Classic on the 72nd hole. The putt itself wasn't that spectacular, but its announcement that one of the game's teen queens has gone from potential star to real player was huge.
Every season starts with a range of expectations. Here's how some of golf's biggest names have measured up
5 W's in 7 starts
5 in a row ties record
8th major W
61st career W
L @ Michelob
Hooks up with Roethlisberger
T3 @ Michelob
T5 @ Corona
Golf Channel reality show
Se Ri Pak
27th @ Kraft Nabisco
54th @ MasterCard
77th @ Shoprite
Two events in Mexico
Ty Votaw resigns
Donna Orender goes to WNBA
Cristie Kerr. With a win at the Michelob and five other top three finishes, she has emerged as the top American on the LPGA tour and the second-best female golfer in the world.
Rosie Jones, 45, has said that she's done after this year, but the 23-year veteran has already racked up five top 10s and is eighth on the money list with $319,279.
POTHY (player of the half year)
Annika, Annika, Annika. Whether it's her five wins in seven starts, her record-tying streak of five wins in a row or her very real shot at the Grand Slam, the LPGA is Annika and everyone else.
One week after her first LPGA win, Paula Creamer got something more important: her high school diploma
On May 22, a week before finishing her senior year at the Pendleton School in Bradenton, Fla., Creamer gave herself an early graduation present in the ninth start of her rookie season. By winning the Sybase Classic in New Rochelle, N.Y., the 18-year-old Creamer became the youngest winner of a multiround event in LPGA history. The graduation gifts she got from family and friends were a little more mundane.
• Louis Vuitton jean purse
• Stiletto heels
• Rock & Republic jeans
• Casual blouses (2)
• Cookies cookbook
• Pink apron and spatula
• Half-carat diamond earrings (from her boyfriend, Tarik Can)
"The gnats were brutal, especially when you got over the ball. They were flying in your face. It seemed as if I was swatting gnats or holding an umbrella the whole time."