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Missing the Cut, Sorenstam Wins

Times Staff Writer

She didn’t make the top 10, she didn’t make the top 50 and she missed making the cut by four shots, but a tie for 96th place didn’t look all that bad to Annika Sorenstam, whose two-day experiment as a player on the PGA Tour turned heads, won fans and convinced her she was right.

But she isn’t going to try this again.

“I’m glad I did it, but this is way over my head,” Sorenstam said Friday. “I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was. With everybody here, everybody cheering for me, I was so nervous.”

The first woman to play a PGA Tour event in 58 years, Sorenstam says she won’t be coming back to the Bank of America Colonial, or any other event on the men’s tour, for that matter.

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“I will not,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to my tour where I belong.”

If nothing else, Sorenstam showed a flair for finishing. She rolled a 14-foot putt straight into the bottom of the hole at the 18th green to save par and end her round of 74, giving her a 36-hole total of 145, five over par. Then she hurled her golf ball into the grandstand, wiped away tears and walked toward the scorer’s area, where she was hugged by her husband, David Esch.

The statistics will show that Sorenstam beat 11 players in the field. They also show that she ranked last in driving distance from all of her drives, 247.5 yards. In an eight-hole stretch, from the fifth through the 12th, Sorenstam had five bogeys and her chances of making the cut disappeared. Only the players with the 70 lowest scores qualify to play the final two rounds.

“The attention is much more than I expected,” she said. “I think the length [of Colonial] wasn’t a problem, it was just everything around it. Being under the microscope and then when I really didn’t perform as well as I think I can, I’m emotionally drained right now.”

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Kenny Perry shot a 64 to earn a share of the 36-hole lead at eight-under 132 with Dan Forsman, who had a 66. Jim Furyk is in third place, one shot behind Perry and Forsman.

But for two days, the focus was not on the leaders, but the 32-year-old Swede, whose acceptance of a sponsor’s invitation to play here has been the golf story of the year. Sorenstam’s score could not dim what she achieved in a whirlwind at Colonial.

The phenomenon of a female professional playing in a men’s pro tournament has not only vaulted Sorenstam into a prominent position in the mainstream media, her presence here this week seems to have sparked new interest in women’s golf and crossed a kind of cultural line involving gender and sports.

The first round proved to be a ratings success for USA Network. The morning and afternoon sessions averaged a 1.6, the highest Thursday rating for a PGA Tour event. One rating point is 1% of households with TVs. It more than doubled the 0.7 that USA averaged for first-round coverage of its previous 15 PGA Tour events.

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Sorenstam more than fulfilled her goal Thursday when she shot a one-over 71. She satisfied the legion of fans that followed her every step and she also managed to ingratiate herself with the male pros she was playing against.

“It was unbelievable,” said Aaron Barber, a PGA Tour rookie paired with Sorenstam and Dean Wilson for the first two rounds. “There were roars everywhere. She handled it awesome. She’s been there, she’s won a lot and even though a few times she says, ‘I don’t belong out here,’ her game is solid. She’s good.”

At the same time, Sorenstam’s landmark appearance at Colonial might affect more than her golf game. She probably will be able to cash in at the marketplace as well.

According to Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports and Celebrities, a company that helps match athletes with advertisers: “It’s win-win for her. Her recognition factor that comes out of this event will really rise with all consumers.”

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“I’m doing all right,” Sorenstam said. “Right now, I have a lot of logos on my shirt already.”

Sorenstam, who recently signed a two-year endorsement deal with Kraft, also endorses Callaway Golf, Mercedes-Benz, Cutter & Buck clothing, Oakley eyewear and Rolex watches.

So when they finish adding up the scores at Colonial, the final tally will not only be about Sorenstam’s golf. Single-handedly, Sorenstam has performed a one-woman standup act about raising awareness of women’s golf. That she had to take her act to the PGA Tour to garner such publicity is perplexing to LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw, but he’s happy for any exposure his tour can get.

Where this experiment goes from here isn’t clear. Even if Sorenstam insists she isn’t up for a second dose, there may be more women in PGA Tour events.

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Suzy Whaley, playing from shorter tees, qualified for the Greater Hartford Open in July. And 13-year-old Michelle Wie of Hawaii has accepted an invitation to play in a Nationwide Tour event in September.

And while there was some speculation this week that the PGA Tour pros would change their bylaws to prohibit females, a high-ranking tour official insisted such a rule change is out of the question.

Sorenstam said that if a woman is good enough, there should be room for her on the PGA Tour, through a sponsor’s exemption, qualifying school or the Monday qualifying tournaments to get into an event.

She also said she was proud of her trailblazing.

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“I hope other women and girls follow their hearts. That’s why I’m here. I just wanted to push myself and do what I love to do the best. It’s really been a historical moment this whole week.”

Pia Nilsson, who coached the Swedish national team for 10 years and tutored a teenage Sorenstam in Stockholm, says the message Sorenstam carried is a simple one.

“She’s saying that it’s important for young girls and boys to have dreams,” Nilsson said. “And to go for them.”

In Nilsson’s opinion, Sorenstam’s main contribution from the Colonial experiment is the spotlight it has trained on women’s golf -- not a competition between men’s golf and women’s golf.

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“Annika has raised the respect level for all female golfers,” Nilsson said. “It’s never been a battle with the men. Annika has elevated the stage of the LPGA and for that, we should all thank her.”

Just outside the red brick clubhouse at Colonial Country Club there is a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of Ben Hogan in full swing. Hogan, who won the PGA Tour event at Colonial five times on the same cozy, tree-lined layout, ruled with such dominating force that the course became known as Hogan’s Alley.

If Hogan’s statue were able to turn slightly to its right on a warm and muggy Friday afternoon, chances are it wouldn’t have believed its bronze eyes.

There at the first tee was a female golfer facing the daunting challenge of conquering Colonial while competing against some of the best male players on the PGA Tour.

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The first female to play a PGA Tour event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias played three tournaments in 1945, Sorenstam waited to be introduced. From the looks of her gallery that stood six deep and pressed along the ropes that lined the fairway, Sorenstam needed no introduction.

Judging from the cheers, many of them from freshly scrubbed young fans, male and female, Colonial may have acquired a new name.

Call it Annika’s Alley.

Katie Klein, 15, and her sister Jordan, 12, wore green “Go Annika” buttons.

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“I think it’s pretty cool they let a woman play in his tournament,” Jordan said. “And that she’s good enough too.”

Katie said she would start following the women’s pro tour now that she has seen Sorenstam up close in a men’s tournament.

“It’s about time,” she said. “Obviously, she’s good.”

Murphy McCabe, 8, said he was having a good time watching Sorenstam.

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“Because she’s mostly the only girl out here,” he said. “And she’s pretty good.”

It didn’t work out, but it was an exhilarating journey. When Sorenstam arrived at Colonial, she said what she was about to do was like climbing Mt. Everest. As she sat in a high-backed chair and reflected on what she had accomplished, Sorenstam said it was quite a hike.

“I’ve climbed as high as I can. And it was worth every step.”


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