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Annika's stealthy approach to history

'Everything is perfect' now for winner of 6 straight tourneys
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sixty years after Byron Nelson won 11 straight tournaments on the PGA Tour, Annika Sorenstam will attempt to set a new LPGA standard starting Thursday at the $2.2 million Michelob Ultra Open here at Kingsmill. It will be her first event since winning the year's first major championship at the Kraft Nabisco five weeks ago in Rancho Mirage, Calif., her third straight victory of the 2005 season.

That eight-shot triumph also was her fifth in a row dating from last season, tying the LPGA record Nancy Lopez set during her rookie season in 1978. But Sorenstam's feat was relegated to the inside pages of most sports sections around the country, what with the NCAA tournament and the Players Championship on the men's tour dominating the news. And her absence from the LPGA Tour until this week clearly muted any buzz her streak might have produced.

When Nelson won 11 in a row in 1945, starting with his pairing with Jug McSpaden to prevail in the Miami Four-Ball and ending six months later when he lost by six shots to amateur Fred Haas in the Memphis Invitational, hardly anyone was paying much attention either.

Nelson, now 93, declined to comment for this story, telling a family spokeswoman that he didn't want to add any more stress to Sorenstam's quest. But several years ago, he recalled the coverage of his streak was minimal, at best.

"Back then there were no radios or TVs covering tournaments," he told the Dallas Morning News. "The first time I was really interviewed about my streak was when I won the ninth one, at the PGA Championship. I think there were six press men there."

A far larger media contingent has gathered here this week, with tournament officials issuing 70 media credentials. Still, that is not even close to the number who covered her first and only appearance on the men's tour in the 2003 Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth.

That novelty act became grand golfing theater until Sorenstam missed the cut, but a victory this week would make LPGA history and further add to her body of work as arguably the finest female golfer ever.

'She's better than Tiger'
Some believe her performance at the Kraft Nabisco, when she played the last 53 holes with no bogeys on her card, may have been her best effort at a major event. The day she won, she said: "I've been driving down the street and it's been green lights, everything is perfect. Good music on the radio, you name it."

"I don't think anybody in the sports world has given her enough credit for what she's done and what she's accomplished," Lopez said when Sorenstam, 35, won her eighth major championship in Rancho Mirage. "I think really and truly, she's better than Tiger Woods.

"She's a great athlete, works very hard, is just as dedicated. We have a lot of great players out here, and nobody is even coming close to her. . . . Tiger was awesome. He's won and played great golf, but I just don't think he's dominated the way she has."

Sorenstam and Woods live near each other in Orlando, and they speak often and occasionally practice together when both are in town. Sorenstam also has become good friends with Woods's wife, Elin, who like Sorenstam is a native of Sweden.

"It's obviously very difficult to compare different players," Sorenstam said. "I'm proud of what I've achieved on the golf course. I'm getting better every year. The work ethic is paying off. Having said that, I'm really where I think my peak is in golf."

If she is at all bothered by the dearth of media or public attention over her current streak, she won't say so publicly. But LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw has no qualms offering his assessment.

"The politically correct answer is that the streak carried over two years, with a considerable gap between some of the wins," he said. "Since Nabisco, she's taken five weeks off, and nobody was even talking about it. But the more irksome answer is that women's sports just don't get the same kind of coverage. Tiger's streak [four straight majors in 2000 and 2001] was over two calendar years too, and that generated no small amount of publicity. But I stopped worrying about those things a long time ago. I think what she's done speaks for itself. She is just so remarkable in every way."

Since 2001, Sorenstam has won 36 tournaments, 14 more over that same span than Woods and 28 more than America's latest golfing heartthrob, Phil Mickelson. Over her career, she has won 59 events, fourth in the LPGA history behind Kathy Whitworth, with 88, Mickey Wright (82) and Patty Berg (60). She needs seven more majors to equal Berg's LPGA-leading 15, and most of her peers believe she has a decent chance to become the tour's career leader in victories and major titles before she is done.

Sorenstam, who finished sixth in 2003 and tied for eighth last season in her two career appearances at Kingsmill, leads the LPGA in greens in regulation, ranks second in driving distance (averaging 272 yards) and fourth in putting. She also has won seven of her last nine events and has played her last 43 rounds in par or better.

"We all know how good she is," LPGA veteran Jean Bartholomew said. "We'd all love to stop [the streak], but we all admire what she's done. She's the best player in the world, male or female. No one wins that consistently in golf, but she does."

More than just golf
Sorenstam's current winning streak is even more remarkable considering the state of her personal life. In mid-February, she confirmed she was in the midst of divorcing David Esch, her husband of seven years, and friends say she played brilliantly last year even while the marriage was crumbling.

Asked about its effect on her play, Sorenstam said, "The way I deal with it is thinking about the good stuff."

"She's a very private person," said Votaw, who said he called her to lend his support when the divorce became public. "I had no idea that was going on or whether she had to deal with those emotions last year. I don't know if it was her ability to compartmentalize it in dealing with it in ways we just didn't see. But it certainly didn't prevent her from having a great year [in 2004] and starting where she left off this season."

Pia Nilsson, a former LPGA player who first began working with Sorenstam on the Swedish national team in 1989, also has become one of her best friends. Nilsson works the mental side of Sorenstam's game and said she often has told her lately that "you should get the Nobel Prize for managing yourself through this [divorce].

"She has so many skills in managing her head and her emotions," Nilsson said in a telephone interview. "Last year she used all them and I was so proud of her for the way she dealt with everything. It's one thing to be good in golf, but you also need to be an actor or actress at times."

Asked about the pressure of keeping the streak going, Sorenstam said, "I love it. It's what keeps me motivated and going. I love the chance. That I can make history, I love that."