Coming into this week’s Safeway International at Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club, the hottest topic concerning the LPGA seems a little out of place, considering what Annika Sorenstam has accomplished over the past 10 years.
Still, inquiring minds want to know: Does Annika still rule?
Sorenstam has remained the No. 1 player in the world since the Rolex world rankings were introduced a little over a year ago. And she did win three times last season, including her third U.S. Women’s Open, to push her career victory total to 69 and counting. But the 36-year-old LPGA Hall of Famer failed to win a sixth straight player of the year award in 2006, losing to Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. Sorenstam finished third on the money list, as even long-time rival Karrie Webb of Australia had a better season financially.
Then Sorenstam opens her 2007 campaign in Mexico two weeks ago with a playoff loss to Meaghan Francella, an unknown rookie, and the media has been abuzz about what’s wrong with Annika.
Is the world of women’s golf undergoing a changing of the guard? Or is Sorenstam simply preoccupied with other things, such as her new golf academy, charity foundation, products line and boyfriend?
If she is at all shaken up about what’s happened lately, the stoic Swede sure isn’t showing it.
“I think I’m playing as good as I could have asked for,’’ Sorenstam said shortly after she missed a 7-foot birdie putt and Francella made hers from 4 feet away to achieve what at one time seemed impossible – beating Annika in sudden death.
“This is my first tournament of the year, and I feel good about my game. I’m very excited about the rest of the year, and the upcoming tournament in Arizona.’’
In fairness to Sorenstam, the greens were way less than perfect at Bosque Real Country Club near Mexico City. But even Francella had to pinch herself.
“Annika is the best player in the world,’’ Francella noted. “I was on the third tee (of the playoff) with her, and I thought, ‘Man, am I really doing this?’ I thought I was dreaming.’’
But before anyone gets too excited about the state of Sorenstam’s game, and the perceived “slump,’’ remember that what’s happened in the past 15 months might very well be an abberation. Or have we forgotten that in the previous five seasons, Sorenstam visited the victory circle a resounding 43 times.
Ochoa, who has yet to bag a major championship among her nine wins, had this perspective on her newfound role as Sorenstam’s nemesis. It came at last season’s Samsung Championship, the pivotal tournament that decided player of the year honors between the two former University of Arizona stars.
Asked if she could hold onto the lead going into Sunday’s final round and beat Sorenstam, Ochoa smiled and said: “Yes.’’ Then she teased the media by adding, “You want more? ... I know (Sorenstam) is tough. I think she is a great player. At the same time, I believe in myself.’’
Chances are Ochoa, 25, will be around to give Sorenstam a run for the money during the next five years, as will Webb, who also already is in the Hall of Fame at age 33 thanks to 35 wins. And 30-year-old Cristie Kerr with nine wins should also be on that list of challengers to the throne.
But the real threat – and Sorenstam knows this only too well – probably will come from the kiddie corps. There are some very good young players, including the American brat pack of Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel; Japanese star Ai Miyazato; and almost all of the 30-plus South Koreans that include 11 players with the surname of Kim.
“The young players have a lot of game; some strong characters with attitude, but I welcome that,’’ Sorenstam said. “I’ve got my hands full. Let’s just say that.”
To that end, Sorenstam has redefined her backswing for ’07 and refocused on what’s really important to her at this stage of her career.
“I wasn’t happy the way I was swinging last year,’’ she admitted, pointing to her highest scoring average in seven years (69.82 strokes per 18 holes). “I feel better about that now, and hope to get back on track again.’’
But for how much longer remains the sticking point. She says she’s still “hungry for majors,’’ but then adds in the next breath that “I do have other interests off the golf course that I have been pursuing more and more.’’
One of those “other interests’’ is the Annika Sorenstam Foundation that helps kids. Another is her newly created golf academy in Florida – Annika’s Academy for Golf & Fitness – that is being overseen by her instructor of 20 years, Henri Reis. And don’t forget her new line of products from clubs to clothes to perfume now being sold under the brand name “Annika.’’ That venture is being managed by the new love in her life, Mike McGee.
So these are fast times in the life of Annika Sorenstam. How the rest of her career unfolds from here remains to be seen.
Chances are Sorenstam is not going to be pressured by the likes of any one player any time soon. But a group effort — say Ochoa, Creamer, Webb and Wie — could still have the same effect of slowing down Sorenstam in her pursuit of Kathy Whitworth’s all-time record of 88 wins.
That slowdown also could be self-induced as Sorenstam said recently she plans on playing in just “15 or 16’’ tournaments this year.
“That’s one thing about not winning many, I don’t have to defend,’’ she quipped.
Don’t believe it. Sorenstam aims to win every time she tees it up. And it all starts anew this week at the Safeway International, a tournament she has won three times, and where once upon a time she shot the lowest score — 59 — in LPGA history.
LPGA Safeway International
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club in Gold Canyon Par: 72; Yardage: 6,629 yards
Purse: $1.5 million with $210,000 to winner
Format: 72 holes of medal play
Defending champ: Juli Inkster
Charity: Banner Health cancer programs
TV: (All tape delay on The Golf Channel.) 3:30-5:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3:30-6 p.m. Saturday; 4:30-7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Two for $20 available at Safeway stores
Directions: Take U.S. Highway 60 east to Superstition Mountain Parkway, with VIP parking to the left and public parking to the right.
Information: www.safewaygolf.com or call (602) 495-4653
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