Golfs battle of the sexes risky for Swedish star

Annika Sorenstam is perceived as a long shot against the men

The subject of Annika Sorenstam's playing against the men comes up often on the PGA and Champions tours.

Sorenstam has entered the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial Tournament, May 22-25.

'Some guys said, 'Let's make a rule where there's no women in our tournaments,' ' says Bob Gilder, a Corvallis native and Champions board member. 'Another guy said, 'Bring them on, let's see what they can do.'

'We don't want to limit them. We know they cannot play with us. The sooner they realize they're fooling themselves, the faster they'll go away. Even their best can't play with our worst.'

It's not a man-woman thing to Gilder, who has won 12 titles on the two men's tours.

'It's not a matter of ability, it's a matter of strength,' he says.

Sorenstam's appearance in a PGA Tour event will draw much-needed publicity and nongolf fans to the television, he adds. 'You're going to have everybody in the world watching that tournament.'

Ben Crane, a PGA Tour regular from Beaverton, agrees. 'It's going to create a ton of excitement,' he says. 'It's big in the media. We talk about it quite a bit on tour. Everyone's very curious, because it's never happened before. I'm sure after she plays, it'll settle down and she probably won't play much anymore.'

Sorenstam, a 32-year-old Swede, dominated women's golf last year with 13 victories worldwide, 11 on the LPGA Tour, including the Safeway Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club. She'll probably return to Portland to defend her title in September and play in the U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in July.

Nine PGA Tour events offered her a sponsors' exemption. She chose the Colonial because the par-70, 7,080-yard Colonial Country Club course in Fort Worth, Texas, plays short and puts a premium on accuracy. By comparison, Pumpkin Ridge will play at par 72, 6,509 yards, and Columbia Edgewater is a par-72, 6,307-yard layout.

'I am curious to see if I can compete in a PGA Tour event,' says Sorenstam, who would be the first woman in a PGA tourney since Babe Zaharias in 1945.

Fellow LPGA player Dottie Pepper says Sorenstam 'will barely make the cut. It's a different world out there. She'd go from reaching most of the par 5s on our tour to having no chance to reach them out there.'

Gilder, who has played the Colonial more than 20 times, says 'if she can break 150 on that course, I'll be surprised. 'Cause she's playing from our tees. The tees are going to be anywhere from 30 to 50 yards a hole back, and some of these guys are going to hit it 40 yards by her. You can't give that much.'

Last year, the cut was at 4-over 144 at the Colonial and 12-over 152 was in last place. Nick Price won the event at 13-under 267.

The course features the 'Horrible Horseshoe' Ñ No. 3, a 476-yard, dogleg left par 4; No. 4, a 246-yard, par 3 where birdies are rare; and No. 5, a 470-yard, par 4, the hardest hole on the course. The only par 5s are the 565-yard 1st and 609-yard 11th.

Sorenstam averaged 265.6 yards on her drives last year, fourth on the LPGA Tour. That would have ranked 196th on the PGA Tour, where John Daly hit it 306.8, Charles Howell III 293.7 and Tiger Woods 293.3. The short hitters among the men included Corey Pavin (258.1), John Cook (264) and Scott Simpson (264.1).

Most of the men will hit short irons and make them stick on the greens at the Colonial. Sorenstam may have to go with longer irons, or even a wood. And Gilder says the greens 'are not receptive to longer shots. They were always sort of firm and fast when I played there. It gets really hot there, and they get tore up pretty easily.'

Also, while Sorenstam is a good putter, can she match the men in that department?

'There's not too many bad putters on the regular tour,' Gilder says. 'There are no poor players, and they all have really good short games.'

Strong mind

When will someone officially declare Sorenstam the greatest LPGA golfer of all time, surpassing Mickey Wright? You don't become a five-time Player of the Year these days without knowing how to compete and close out tournaments.

'She knows how to win,' says Ruth Ann Boston, LPGA pro at Red Tail Golf Course.

The 5-6 Sorenstam keeps herself in phenomenal shape Ñ just check out the Sports Illustrated story with photos of her rippled stomach. She has become extremely committed to fitness in the last 26 months.

Bryan Tunstill, a pro at Columbia Edgewater since 1993, says Sorenstam is 'hands down' the best woman golfer he has seen. 'She's flat-out better at any tournament she wishes to be in. Dominant,' he says. 'She has the complete package. She doesn't get rattled.'

Not surprisingly, Sorenstam led the LPGA in scoring average (68.70) last year. Her mental strength, a key factor, will be needed at Colonial.

'It's certainly an additional challenge to her,' Boston says. 'I think she'll rise to the occasion.'

Tunstill thinks Sorenstam is getting bored on the LPGA Tour. 'It's been too easy for her,' he says. 'Playing Colonial will make her better and sharper, even if she doesn't succeed at it.'

Because the Colonial plays short with dry conditions, Sorenstam's lack of length will not hurt her,'Crane says. 'It's a positioning course.'

Sorenstam led the LPGA last year in hitting greens in regulation at 79.7 percent.

Phil Mickelson predicted that Sorenstam definitely would make the cut and finish around 20th.

A ton of pressure

Mary Budke, perhaps the best female golfer in Oregon history, a winner of eight Oregon Amateur championships, says Sorenstam playing the PGA event 'is a little bit of a setup for failure. It's a huge media frenzy.'

Budke says women 'could no way be on that tour' but might be competitive in a three-event series. A one-event try could go south on Sorenstam, she says.

'She could embarrass herself, and it'd be awful, but it could still add to the interest level,' says Budke, who works in the emergency room at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene.

Can Sorenstam make the cut?

'I wouldn't be surprised, but I wouldn't bet on it,' Tunstill says.

'Absolutely,' Crane says. 'Does she have a chance to win the tournament? No. She doesn't have a chance. There are too many guys who are such great players.

'Plus, she'll have the world of golf watching. There'll be a ton of pressure on her, probably more than she has ever felt. How she responds, I don't know. And I don't know if men and women golfers are meant to compete like this.'

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