Time to play a mind game. Imagine that you are a PGA Tour pro and you’re in the field this week at Colonial Country Club. You know there are only two things that matter.
You’ve got to make the cut.
You’ve got to finish ahead of Annika Sorenstam.
You can almost forget about anything else for the week, when reality is suspended or at least warped, when the first female player in 58 years tees it up in the same professional tour event as the men, hits from the same tees, putts on the same speedy greens and when it’s over, adds up her score like everybody else.
This is where the tricky part comes in. Chances are good Sorenstam is going to outplay some PGA Tour pros. While most everyone has tried to predict how Sorenstam will do, that’s not the only intriguing question that will be answered at Colonial.
Here’s another: How are the players that she beats going to feel?
The picture may not be a flattering one.
“It depends on the individual, but some guys who are threatened by this, they are going to have a very difficult time recovering,” said Dr. Tom Tutko, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State and one of the founders of the sports psychology movement.
“How do you deal with a woman, who has stepped out of the realm and into yours as a male player? It’s a psych-out game and it could be an advantage for Annika if she wants to play it or the PGA Tour pros allow themselves to be played. Women don’t play as well as men, she can plant that idea. The men, they could be affected if they are thinking of her as a woman instead of another player in competition.”
If it’s all in the mind, that may be the very worst place for it.
Sorenstam is one of 12 who received a sponsor’s exemption from Bank of America into the 114-player field at Colonial.
The others are Aaron Barber, Curt Byrum, Brandel Chamblee, Brian Henninger, Per-Ulrik Johansson, James McLean, Carl Paulson, Scott Simpson, Joey Sindelar and Brian Watts. One final sponsor’s exemption had not been awarded Sunday night.
The defending champion is Nick Price, whose 13-under-par 267 last year beat Kenny Perry and David Toms by two shots. But this year, the focus for more players who would probably care to admit it is slightly skewed. It’s all about making the cut.
When Price won last year, anybody who shot a 36-hole total of four-over or worse was out, which means that 72 players in the field of 124 stayed around for the weekend.
Deborah Graham is a sports psychologist whose golf clients include Greg Chalmers, Phil Taturangi and Cameron Beckman and she has also worked with Mark Calcavecchia and Lee Janzen.
Graham says she would advise her clients to stick to what she has always told them.
“Simply play the course,” Graham said. “That’s what we teach. It’s not the other player. Play up to your abilities and then, whatever happens, happens.”
But in this particular setting, where Sorenstam is drawing so much attention in her quest to test her game against the best male players, the standard formula for concentration may be a little more difficult to apply.
“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of discipline,” said Graham, who also said she wouldn’t be surprised to learn of player withdrawals this week, with the whispered reason being “I don’t want to get beat by a woman.”
Graham said such a feeling is a real “fear factor” that most people can relate to, traced back to youth sports, “when young boys found it hard to be beaten in sports by girls.”
Sports psychologist Bob Rotella, whose clients include Davis Love III, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Scott Verplank, believes a large portion of the hype and pressure on Sorenstam and her PGA Tour counterparts will not last long.
“One thing about golf, once you get on the golf course, all that fades away,” Rotella said.
“Annika is smart and will be prepared. She’s going to make sure she doesn’t upset anyone or get in arguments with anybody. She’ll stay on focus, that she’s trying to test herself, not trying to beat the guys.
“Everyone else is trying to make it this male-female thing. Are the guys kidding with each other about finishing behind Annika? Yeah. So at some level, there’s something there. Maybe they’ll concentrate a lot better. I’d tell my guys that it’s not a game against anybody else, that it’s you against the golf course. Anybody who lets themselves get wrapped up in losing to Annika, they won’t play up to their capabilities.
“It’s not like she’s a crummy golfer. My guess is Sorenstam will deal with it all pretty well. Most guys have the utmost admiration for Annika Sorenstam, because day in and day out, she shoots good numbers. It’s fascinating that she has the courage, the guts, confidence and the love of golf to want to go out there and test herself.
“That tells you a lot about her.”
Rotella said that Sorenstam’s mission has been the talk of golf and that if she makes the cut, it’s the golf story of the year. Like many golf fans, both casual and ardent, Rotella will be interested in watching how Sorenstam fares. But as a sports psychologist, he will also keep an eye on the male players to gauge their reaction.
Losing to Sorenstam is not something any PGA Tour pro should even be thinking about, Rotella says.
“Any guy who’s got that much of a flaw in his head won’t be on the tour very long.”
In the long run, that result could prove to be much more damaging than missing the cut this week ... or finishing behind a woman.
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Sorenstam in 2003
How Annika Sorenstam has fared on the LPGA Tour this season (LPGA rank in parenthesis):
*--* Starts 5 Top 5 finishes 5 Firsts 1 Earnings $554,501 Rounds under par 15/18 (1) Greens in regulation 765 (1) Driving average 275.4 (2)