The McDonald's LPGA Championship will begin a new chapter today. But in coming to Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace after a decade in Delaware, this major championship arrives with what is becoming a very old story line: whether any player other than Annika Sorenstam can win the $1.8 million tournament.
It hasn't been done in this event the past two years, and has only been done twice in the seven tournaments Sorenstam has played this year.
The first time, at the Michelob ULTRA Open in Williamsburg, Va., last month, Sorenstam struggled under the pressure of going for an LPGA Tour record sixth victory in as many events. She opened with a 76 and finished tied for 12th.
The next time, three weeks later in the Corning Classic, Sorenstam stayed in contention all week, shooting four scores in the 60s, only to watch Jimin Kang win with the help of a hole-in-one in the final round. Sorenstam finished tied for second.
"They say that second place is the first one to lose," Sorenstam said earlier this week. "It makes me want to go home and practice and figure out what I did wrong and how I can beat that person."
They also say that practice makes perfect. The week after Williamsburg, Sorenstam won by 10 shots in the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship outside Atlanta. Last week, she won by four in the ShopRite Classic in Galloway Township, N.J.
Long the best female player in the world and possibly the best in history, Sorenstam is the prohibitive favorite to win her second straight major this season and become the first LPGA player to win the same major three years running.
The biggest equalizer could be Bulle Rock itself.
Unlike a few other LPGA players who familiarized themselves with the course at a charity outing last year, Sorenstam had never hit a shot at the 7-year-old Pete Dye creation until Monday night, when she took a few putts.
"That's just the way I normally prepare for things," said Sorenstam, whose most recent victory was the 61st of her career, placing her third all-time behind Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). "I'm not going to overdo it because it's a major."
The last time Sorenstam didn't play a new venue until she showed up for the week of the tournament was at the 2002 Weetabix Women's British Open at Turnberry in Scotland. It was also the last time she missed the cut, a streak that has now reached 50 straight events.
That seems unlikely this week, given the way Sorenstam is playing. Unless she is tripped up by the tricky greens, it is also difficult envisioning anyone other than the 34-year-old Swede hoisting the sterling silver trophy and taking home the first-place check for $270,000 come Sunday.
Asked the last time she played well and lost, Sorenstam had to think hard.
"I remember the U.S. Open in Kansas," said Sorenstam, referring to the 2002 Open at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan., in which she finished second, two shots behind Juli Inkster. "Actually, last year at the U.S. Open. I thought I played really good. I thought if I birdied 17 and 18, I'll win this championship."
Sorenstam did birdie the last two holes, but it wasn't enough to make up the four-shot lead that Meg Mallon had built. Mallon, who would win by two strokes, remembers what she was not thinking about -- Sorenstam or anybody else catching her.
"I was so focused into my own thing, which is the right thing to do, that's what every player should do," said Mallon, a three-time major champion who won the LPGA Championship in 1991. "They can't play Annika. They have to find their success in their own way."
Said Korea's Se Ri Pak, the last player other than Sorenstam to win the LPGA Championship, "It's pretty difficult to play the best, I guess. Not only because of Annika. We're not really thinking about Annika, but we're just looking for the No. 1 place. She's really strong in her mind. She's been there for a long time."
Christie Kerr, who took advantage of Sorenstam's first-round stumble in Williamburg to win, believes the gap is closing.
"It's almost like when one person beats her head-to-head, people are going to believe, I can do this, too," said Kerr, whose $820,377 in earnings this year ranks second to Sorenstam ($1,233,238) on the tour's money list . "Just like what happened with Tiger. She's the best player in the world, but you know, we're all pretty good, too, and we're all ready to challenge."
Who to watch today
Player Tee Time Annika Sorenstam 10th 8:32 a.m.
Cristie Kerr 10th 9:16 a.m.
Karrie Webb 1st 12:15 p.m.
Grace Park 1st 12:48 p.m.
Michelle Wie 1st 1:21 p.m.
Full tee-time schedule, Page 7E