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Sorenstam in a field of her own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The record has been sitting there for 20 years, ever since Kathy Whitworth won the last of her 88 career victories on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.

It has become an elusive number, magical yet obscure given the status of women's golf these days compared with the PGA Tour.

No one has come close to even threatening a mark that is six more wins than the record Sam Snead set among the men. Nancy Lopez stopped 40 wins short, JoAnne Carner was 45 shy.

Annika Sorenstam is 27 wins behind Whitworth.

"I've always thought the 88 wins were incredible, I don't know if I can ever achieve that," Sorenstam, 34, said last month. "It's never been a goal of mine. I always thought it was so unbelievable, so far away."

But given what Sorenstam has done in her own career, Whitworth's record is now within her sights, if not quite yet within her reach.

Having won her first three events this season, and five overall, including the year's first major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, Sorenstam will be looking to win her third straight McDonald's LPGA Championship this week.

If successful, Sorenstam will become the first player in LPGA history to win the same major championship three years in a row. The tournament will be played at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace for the first time after 11 years at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del.

"She's the yardstick and we've all got to fit in place," said England's Laura Davies, who was the No. 1 player in the world when Sorenstam turned pro in 1994. "A few have gotten close to her, but she's in a different class than the rest of us."

Some of her peers had counted on Sorenstam's personal issues having an impact on her game. If anything, she has become more focused since her divorce after eight years of marriage to David Esch became final in February. Her life is certainly different.

"It's taken a drastic turn," Sorenstam said last month, sitting with two reporters in a conference room at the Kingsmill Spa and Resort in Williamsburg, Va., before the Michelob ULTRA Open. "Now I can throw myself into golf and try to do something that I enjoy. I have nothing else to pull me away from the game, unless I want to start a new career."

That seems unlikely, given how dominant she is in her current one.

But the question needs to be asked: Will she hang on just to get to 88 or 89, as other athletes have done, often feebly and usually failing, as they chased records in their respective sports?

"I think maybe if I play another three or four years and I'm around 80 [wins], maybe," said Sorenstam, who recorded her 61st Sunday at the Shoprite LPGA Classic. "But if I were at 75, that's a lot. If I were at 80 or 85, maybe I'd play another year and see what happens."

Whitworth expects Sorenstam to break her record.

"I see no reason why she won't," Whitworth, now 65, said recently from her home outside Dallas. "It's kind of fun to watch. I wasn't even thinking about Mickey's record [of 82, set by Mickey Wright]. It's something that just happens at the end of your career and it happened at the end of mine."

Remaining in focus

Once, all these numbers seemed almost unthinkable to Sorenstam.

"When I came out as a rookie, I didn't know if I could win a single tournament," she said, the honesty in her eyes making the lunacy of her statement almost believable.

The breakthrough came at the 1995 U.S. Women's Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Sorenstam held off Meg Mallon to win her first LPGA tour event. Sorenstam won two more that year, and three the next, including the Open.

Though she won 17 events from 1997 through 2000, her record in majors was spotty. After finishing first on the money list three times in a four-year period, Sorenstam was fourth in 1999. Karrie Webb of Australia had climbed to No. 1 in 1999 and 2000, and Se Ri Pak of South Korea was a solid No. 2.

"I looked at myself and said, 'How can I get to the next level?' " recalled Sorenstam. "I've always thought that golfers should be like all the other athletes, why shouldn't we train like other athletes?"

Sorenstam saw what Tiger Woods, then in the most dominant period of his career, had done by transforming himself with intense weight training, a method most golfers had previously looked at as if it were voodoo.

With the help of Orlando-based personal trainer Kai Fusser, whose clients are mostly windsurfers and wakeboarders, Sorenstam became the strongest, and eventually longest, player on the women's tour.

"I can't believe how she's changed her body type," said LPGA veteran Sally Little. "When she first came out here, she couldn't hit it out of her shadow. She has such a different physique, it's unbelievable."

Sorenstam is not quite as buffed and bulked as Woods, now a close friend and practice partner because of a professional connection to their agent, Mark Steinberg, along with a personal one to Woods' Swedish-born wife, Elin, but Sorenstam makes most of her competitors look as scrawny as she once was.

"Consistency has been my thing," said Sorenstam. "I continue to work out, I continue to work out on the road. For me, it's more than just going to the gym, I love it. I try to learn, it's just part of my day really."

And how much has her weight training played in her performance?

"It plays a big part definitely," she said. "I've gotten a lot stronger, I definitely notice it in the longer clubs, longer irons, the consistency to move through the ball, I have the strength to hold it. That's the thing I really didn't expect, because I never worked out before."

Remaining in focus

The part of her game that didn't need work was the mental side.

Terry McNamara, who has caddied for Sorenstam since the end of the 1999 season, credits most of her success to an unrelenting pursuit of perfection. "There are no shortcuts," said McNamara, who grew up in Westminster and previously worked more than 11 years for Rosie Jones. McNamara recalls the period Sorenstam was passed by Webb. Leaving a course one night after the opening round of a tournament, outplayed by Webb, Sorenstam was in tears.

"She looked at me and said, 'I'm the best player,' " recalled McNamara. "I told her that she had to be patient, and that she would get there. I got back to where I was staying and she called me, and said the same thing. Once she gets something in her mind, she's on that road until she gets there."

Sorenstam arrived again in 2001, when she won eight times, and became the first female to shoot a 59 in competition. The next year, Sorenstam became only the second player aside from the legendary Wright to win 11 events in a season. But her most remarkable performance might have been last year.

In 18 events, Sorenstam won eight times and finished second in four others, all while her marriage to Esch was crumbling.

"Her focus wasn't on golf, it was on trying to save her marriage," said McNamara.

That she is willing to talk at all about her personal life is a testament to her growth, and the fact that she is more comfortable being a celebrity than she was two years ago, when Sorenstam accepted an invitation to play in a PGA Tour event, at Colonial.

Though she missed the cut, Sorenstam earned the respect of many on the PGA Tour who previously criticized her for taking up a sponsor's exemption. Sorenstam has said repeatedly that she will not venture there again. Even the prospect of qualifying for the British Open doesn't seem to interest her.

"I don't think wherever I would go, it would be the same," she said. "It was perfect. I wish I could have played on the weekend. But I think I proved to myself, I know where I stand. It got so big, the pressure, I really didn't expect that.

"This is where I belong. We have a great tour and I want it to go to the next level. I love to win. If I played in a PGA event and I made the cut, that's great, but if I would go out first thing in the morning [on Saturday or Sunday], right behind the mowers, I don't want to play for 40th or 50th place. What do I have to prove?"

There is barely anything left for Sorenstam, who qualified for the LPGA's Hall of Fame in 2003, to accomplish.

Except something no player, female or male, has ever done as a professional golfer.

"I'm not afraid to say, I would love to win a Grand Slam, there's no doubt," said Sorenstam. "It's very difficult to do, but again, that's what keeps me going, to do something nobody else has done. That's what I've got to do now because I've achieved so much more than I thought I would. To go out and play for me just to play doesn't make me tick anymore."

How Sorenstam's numbers stack up

TOTAL VICTORIES

61

Third place behind Mickey Wright (82) and Kathy Whitworth (88)

MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

8

Tied for fifth with Betsy Rawls behind Berg (15), Wright (13), Louise Suggs (11) and Babe Zaharias (10)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR HONORS

7

Tied for first with Whitworth

LOWEST 72-HOLE SCORE

27

under par

At the 2001 Standard Register Ping in Phoenix, it's the best tournament score ever recorded.

LOWEST SINGLE ROUND

59

13-under par

At 2001 Standard Register Ping, she's the only female player in history to shoot below 60 in a competitive round

CAREER EARNINGS

$16,977,819

The most of any female golfer, $6,537,120 ahead of Karrie Webb

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