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Meet the new rivals: same as the old rivals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the McDonald's LPGA Championship made its inaugural visit to the Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace last year, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb were in divergent phases of their Hall of Fame careers.

Sorenstam, who earlier in the year had tied Nancy Lopez's LPGA record by winning five straight tournaments she entered, was being talked about as the greatest female golfer ever.

Webb, once considered even better than Sorenstam, seemed almost embarrassed to celebrate her inclusion into the LPGA's Hall of Fame by simply showing up for the tournament to complete her 10th season on tour.

Nothing changed that week.

Sorenstam won her second straight major, her third straight LPGA title and would go on to win 10 times last year. Webb would finish tied for 20th and would go winless for the year for the first time since turning pro.

When the McDonald's LPGA Championship returns to Bulle Rock this week, these two former rivals who jockeyed for the No. 1 ranking during a six-year stretch from 1995 through 2000 are in different places again.

Sorenstam, 35, is in the midst of her first noticeable winless drought in seven years. After winning her 67th LPGA event in her season-opener in Mexico, Sorenstam missed a cut for the first time in nearly four years and has failed to close out a couple of other tournaments at which she had a late lead or was in contention going into the final round.

Webb, 32, is in the midst of a rejuvenation, having won her first major in four years at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March and then backing it up with a seven-stroke win last month at the Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg, Va., where Sorenstam had missed the cut.

One of the most competitive, if not quite compelling, rivalries in LPGA history has been renewed as Webb has reemerged as one of the tour's top players and a much more engaging figure than she was when she won 22 times in five years, including seven tournaments in 2000.

"I would never say I took it for granted when I was playing well," Webb said after her recent victory, the most lopsided win on tour this year. "But I took it for granted much more than I do know. I really, really appreciate the good and how quickly the game can turn on you."

Webb, who also has finished second twice this year, cites a couple of reasons for her steady decline after 2000, particularly the past three seasons. Webb bottomed out last year when she finished a career-low 27th on the money list and finished second only once, three strokes behind Sorenstam in the Mexican event.

"The main reason is because I lost a lot of confidence in my game," said Webb. "When I needed to hit good shots or make putts, I just wasn't doing it. Probably one of the reasons why I became No. 1 in the world and maintained that for a couple of years was because I didn't stop and ask why I was doing that."

It might be a process Sorenstam is going through now. Just as the mention of the Grand Slam followed her to Bulle Rock last year, there is the almost unfathomable thought that Sorenstam could be starting the kind of slump her good friend Tiger Woods went through after completing his own version of the slam.

Has anyone mentioned the dreaded "S" word to Sorenstam?"No, not really, and even if they have, I probably didn't hear it," Sorenstam said in a recent interview. "You have to put things in perspective here. I think you have to understand that there are a lot of good players out here and to win a tournament, you really have to play well."

What has happened to Sorenstam after a five-year stretch when she has won 43 events overall, including seven majors, and became the first player since the legendary Mickey Wright to twice win more than 10 events in a year has been as big a surprise as a then unknown Swede was in winning the 1995 U.S. Women's Open.

"I haven't seen anything like this in a while," Cristie Kerr said after playing with Sorenstam and a resurgent Webb in Williamsburg. "Golf goes through cycles. This year, even though she did win in Mexico, it seems like she is struggling more than in other years. I played enough with her to know that something was wrong."

Terry McNamara, who has caddied for Sorenstam since September 1999, said that a stretch like this wasn't totally unexpected.

"She's had such a long and good run, there's going to be a time to catch your breath I guess, hit a little plateau or something," McNamara said last week before the ShopRite LPGA Classic, where Sorenstam tied for second, her fourth top-6 finish in her past five events. "I really feel there's nothing wrong with her."

There are other reasons for Sorenstam's recent struggles. An offseason attempt to widen her stance in order to generate more power and maybe get a little more consistency with the direction of her drives has already been scrapped, and Sorenstam went back to her old stance last month.

"A wider stance is something I really want, but it's been tough for me to get the hang of it," said Sorenstam. "I'm kind of going back to the basics that I know works for me and we'll go from there."

It's interesting that Sorenstam's rockiest stretch in recent years comes at a time when her personal life, the source of sadness during the breakup of an eight-year marriage in the fall of 2004, has reportedly been better than it has been for a while. Sorenstam is dating Mike McGee, the son of former PGA player Jerry McGee.

"I'm a lot happier than I am in a long time. I don't know if that has anything to do with my golf, but I feel like I'm as committed as I've always been," said Sorenstam. "I've only played five events [now seven] and I don't really want any conclusions yet."

McNamara believes that Webb's resurgence will help energize Sorenstam.

"I think one of the people most happy about Karrie Webb coming back is Annika," said McNamara. "Karrie Webb helped Annika be Annika. That's the truth. Karrie doesn't do it like that. I've heard Karrie said 'I just motivate myself.' As far as Annika is concerned. Karrie Webb raised the bar and that was what Annika worked toward, kept working and got past that."

Now Sorenstam is the measuring stick and Webb is trying to climb back toward the top. During the offseason, Webb hired fellow Australian Ian Triggs to provide more in-person coaching than she received from her longtime teacher back home, Kevin Haller, a quadraplegic who has worked with Webb mostly over the phone and through videotapes.

It changed quickly for Webb at Kraft Nabisco. Playing from behind for all of the week, Webb holed out from 116 yards for eagle on the 72nd hole and went on to beat Lorena Ochoa in sudden death. Then came Williamsburg, where Webb went wire-to-wire.

"I think the last four weeks proved to probably a lot of people and proved to myself, as well, that Kraft wasn't a fluke," Webb said after her win in Williamsburg. "I didn't come out of nowhere, pop up, win that and disappear again. I tread lightly knowing how such a fine line you can tread in this game."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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