Two down, two to go, and a true-to-life rival has arrived. That's the skinny on Annika Sorenstam's three-shot victory at the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., last week, a tournament Sorenstam seemingly had wrapped up by Saturday evening, when she left the course holding a five-shot lead. Since Sorenstam had a streak going of 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s--an LPGA record--and is playing the best golf of her phenomenal career, most of her pursuers admitted, with a round to play, that they were now vying for second place.
Looking cool in the sweltering 92° heat on Sunday, with only eight holes to play, Sorenstam had extended her lead to eight shots--the exact margin of her victory at the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Then she pretended to be human. Having made only four bogeys in the first three rounds over Pete Dye's challenging 6,486-yard, par-72 track, Sorenstam went into the golfing equivalent of a prevent defense and made four more bogeys over the final eight holes, ending her record streak (68-67-69-73--277) while coasting to her second major title of 2005. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Michelle Wie found the putting stroke that had eluded her all week and rolled in a couple of late birdies to shoot her fourth consecutive sub-par round (69-71-71-69) and finish alone in second, a respectable three strokes back.
The present and future of women's golf--think of Arnold Palmer winning his only U.S. Open, in 1960 at Cherry Hills, over a young amateur named Jack Nicklaus--had made separate but equal statements. One declared that she is gloriously in her prime, and the other announced that she is getting ready to knock down the door.
Make no mistake, this tournament was never close to getting away from Sorenstam. If she hadn't played the par-5s in a mind-boggling three over par (Wie, who is actually a little shorter off the tee than Sorenstam, played the four par-5s in five under), it might have been a record-setting blowout. Focused on her stated goal of winning all four majors this year--Sorenstam is the first woman to win the initial two since Pat Bradley in 1986--the 34-year-old Swede is in total control of her game. Statistically, she's first on tour in driving distance (274.0) and in greens hit in regulation (.753), and second in putts per greens in regulation (1.72).
"It's almost as if she's toying with us, like a cat playing with a mouse," says Laura Davies, the long-hitting Englishwoman who tied for third at six under. "Annika's the best golfer who ever played, man or woman. She's dusting us every week."
The win was Sorenstam's third straight at the LPGA Championship, her ninth major (tying her with her practice-round pal, Tiger Woods), her 62nd career win and her sixth W in eight starts this year. Since the beginning of the 2004 season, Sorenstam has won 14 of 26 starts. Since teeing it up against the men at the Colonial in '03, she's won exactly half--19 of 38--of the events she's entered. Houston, we have achieved separation. Her dominance over her fellow pros even leaves the shy Sorenstam at a loss for words. "I have to pinch myself sometimes when I see my results," she said on Sunday. "I get overwhelmed when I look at my bio in the [LPGA media guide]. I'm a little girl from Sweden who came over here to follow my dreams and try to win a few tournaments."
Yes, and Wayne Gretzky was a little boy from Ontario. Next week Sorenstam, who's anything but shy about her ambitions, will tackle the next leg of the Grand Slam by trying to win her third U.S. Open at--drumroll, please--Cherry Hills, outside Denver, a historically delicious coincidence. If she succeeds, she'll go to the Women's British Open at Royal Birkdale, July 28-31, trying to do what no pro golfer has ever done: sweep the majors in a single year.
A certain six-foot, 15-year-old phenom will be at both venues trying to stop her. "She's put a lot of pressure on herself," said the precocious Wie, stylishly attired in her Nike "power fuchsia" golf shirt on Sunday. "She can have three [majors], and I'll take the other. All the other players are going to practice really hard to try to beat her."
Wie, for one, is working out with a trainer two hours a day, adding muscle to her lanky frame in an effort to add another 10 to 15 yards to her already mammoth drives. She averaged 283.8 yards off the tee at Bulle Rock, third behind Davies (289.25) and Sorenstam (286.4). Wie has accepted an invitation to compete at a PGA Tour event July 7-10, the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., and, she says, "I want to be up there with the big dogs."
Such bravado from a high school junior has not exactly endeared Wie to the sisterhood on the tour. In the 51-year history of the LPGA Championship, which is, after all, a tournament for pro golfers, an amateur had never been invited. Then this year the good folks at McDonald's (I'm lovin' it!) strong-armed tour officials to invite Wie (or we'll be leavin' it!).
"The LPGA Championship has always been special to the players," says Heather Daly-Donafrio, a Yale grad who is president of the LPGA, "but we have a disadvantage because we have a corporate sponsor for our own championship. McDonald's puts up $3 million for the week, and this was about raising the profile of the tournament. Our veteran players were not supportive of the invite--I got an earful when it was announced--but I think it was a great decision. This is now the strongest field of the year."
"This is the kind of tournament you should earn your way into," says Cristie Kerr, 27, who has won five times on the LPGA tour. "If we have to resort to this sort of thing for publicity, maybe we should look at other ways."
Playing topless? Hiring a thug to club Sorenstam on the knee with a wedge? The mind reels at the possibilities, but the fact is that Wie has captured the public's fancy--her gallery was at least as large as Sorenstam's all week, and the TV-ratings-challenged LPGA needs every bit of coverage it can get.
Even much-respected Nancy Lopez, captain of this year's U.S. Solheim Cup team, weighed in, opining that Wie was getting bad advice by playing so often against the pros. "She should have played more amateur golf against her peers and gotten used to winning," Lopez said on the eve of the tournament. "She says she wants to play on the men's tour. Why? It's a little insulting. She should play out here and try to beat Annika first."
Wie, who is now six for six making the cut at majors, was unfazed by the controversy. "I'm pretty used to people not wanting me in tournaments now," she said.
The only thing that did faze her was the lunch she ate before teeing off on Thursday, a casserole of salmon, shrimp and rice her mother prepared for her that nearly did her in. "I ate too much, and going into the heat, walking, it caused a little indigestion," the teenager explained to a rapt press corps. "It was pretty bad. Every time I breathed in, when I breathed out it felt like barf was coming out with it. Sorry for the picture."
Ditto. Fortunately for Wie, an afternoon thunderstorm caused a temporary halt to play, and her tummy had recovered by the time play resumed. She shot 33 on the back nine for an opening 69, which put her only two shots behind the leaders, Davies and Natalie Gulbis, and one behind Sorenstam. Had Wie not taken 33 putts on Friday, when she hit 16 of 18 greens yet finished only one under, and another 31 putts on Saturday, she might have been in better position to make a bona fide run on Sunday. "I was very tentative putting this week until the last nine holes," she said.
Sorenstam, meanwhile, played relentlessly brilliant golf until the tournament was iced. Through the first three rounds she avoided Bulle Rock's treacherous rough by hitting 36 of 42 fairways, and needed only 83 putts on the slick, undulating greens, the fewest in the field. (She finished with 115.) It was testament less to her putting stroke--she three-jacked the par-5 8th green three days in a row--than to her sterling iron play. Sorenstam's distance control on her approach shots is such that most of her birdies are kick-ins.
Once betrayed by her nerves in the majors--between 1997 and 2000 she won 17 times without a major--Sorenstam now shows the steely resolve under pressure that sets the great ones apart. She traces that back to her handling of the excruciating self-imposed pressure at the '03 Colonial. "Wherever I go I feel like, I've done that. I can handle this," Sorenstam says. "Nothing really scares me."
With her marital problems nearing resolution--she and her husband of 10 years, David Esch, filed for divorce in February--Sorenstam now seems most at peace when on the course. "Playing well and winning tournaments at this particular time in my life is important to me," she said in a reflective moment on Sunday. "I'm not saying victories are replacing happiness off the course, but it helps. Hopefully I'll have them both someday."
Spoken like that little girl from Sweden who's halfway to a Soren-slam.