Sorenstam Tries a Proving Ground

Times Staff Writer

If Annika Sorenstam has a fragile psyche, chances are it’s going to show up this week at Colonial Country Club, but should we expect anything of the sort to happen?

“There is more pressure than she’s ever been under,” said Pia Nilsson, a Swedish coach and instructor who has worked with Sorenstam for 14 years.

No matter, says Nilsson, who believes that instead of wilting, it’s far more likely that Sorenstam will be cooler than a Stockholm sidewalk in the winter when she tees it up with the male pros at the PGA Tour event in Fort Worth.

“Annika is not worried about the golf, she’s told me,” Nilsson said. “She said ‘Pia, the worst thing that could happen is that I learn something.’ I told her ‘Don’t ever let anyone take that away from you.’ ”


The worst thing that could happen to Sorenstam doesn’t involve missing the cut, says Nilsson, who believes there is no downside, despite what Sorenstam’s detractors might say.

“If she doesn’t play well, they’re going to say negative things, but I don’t think the fallout will last very long,” Nilsson said. “It will be forgotten soon, which I realize seems difficult to believe right now with all the media attention Annika is getting.

“But Annika has made it clear, this is not about trying to prove that women are better than men. She’s interested in testing herself, stretching her limits and becoming a role model for the future, for young girls to come, and to take on challenges.”

Nilsson, a former LPGA tour player, coached the Swedish national team from 1989 to 1999. Sorenstam joined the Swedish team in 1987 when she was 17 and competed through 1992 when she was at the University of Arizona and was the World Amateur champion and runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur.


They communicate regularly, by telephone and through e-mail, and Nilsson says her relationship with Sorenstam is as a friend and coach. Sorenstam’s longtime coach, who spends a lot of time with her on the driving range, is another Swede, Henri Reiss.

In Nilsson’s opinion, Sorenstam will be prepared to take on Colonial and all else associated with her high-profile appearance with the same kind of stoic aplomb she exhibits on the LPGA tour.

“I don’t think anything will affect her talent,” Nilsson said.

When the opportunity to play in a PGA Tour event first came up, Nilsson said she and Sorenstam spoke at length to weigh the pros and cons. Sorenstam had already made up her mind, and soon, so did Nilsson.


“I love it,” she said. “The best woman player in the world striving for more excellence.”

Sorenstam’s game, as well as her powers of concentration, will be tested at Colonial. On the LPGA tour, Sorenstam ranks second in average driving distance at 275.4 yards and she is first in greens in regulation. However, she is tied for 39th in driving accuracy, or fairways hit, and tied for 64th in putting.

Colonial Country Club isn’t necessarily long by PGA Tour standards, measuring 7,080 yards, with a par of 70. Only three PGA Tour events are played on shorter, par-70 courses, including this week’s Byron Nelson, the British Open at Royal St. George’s and the Greater Hartford Open at TPC at River Highlands.

Colonial, where Ben Hogan won five times, is known for small, fast greens and tight pins -- setups that are not normally seen on the LPGA tour.


“We know she can’t hit it as far as most of the men,” Nilsson said of Sorenstam. “We know she can’t spin the ball as well as most of the men. But what’s more of a challenge than that? She says she’s ready for it, and I’m going to take her at her word.”



Swede Sensation


Annika Sorenstam at a glance:

* Age: 32.

* Country: Sweden.

* College: Arizona (1991 NCAA champion).


* Rookie season: 1994

* First victory: 1995 U.S. Women’s Open.

* Career LPGA victories: 43.

* Majors: U.S. Women’s Open (1995, 1996), Kraft Nabisco Championship (2001, 2002).


* Player of the year: 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002.

* Vare Trophy (lowest scoring average): 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2002.

* Best score: 59 in the 2001 Standard Register Ping tournament.

* Lowest average: 68.70 in the 2002 season, 0.72 strokes better than the record she set the previous year.


* Best season: 11 victories in 2002, $2.8 million in earnings.

* Noteworthy: Sorenstam is the first player since Babe Zaharias in the 1945 Los Angeles Open to compete on the PGA Tour.

* Quoteworthy: “I’m not afraid. I know I can play.” -- Sorenstam.