Skins Game Another First for Sorenstam

Times Staff Writer

There's more than one way to skin a Skins Game, and this year that means Annika Sorenstam gets to play.

It also means a new venue for the Skins Game, which will be played Saturday and Sunday at Trilogy Golf Club at La Quinta. Then again, a new venue is nothing new; the Skins Game has moved four times since 1991.

But in golf's year of the woman, Sorenstam will break yet another gender barrier, becoming the first woman to play in the annual Thanksgiving weekend event.

She already became the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play a PGA Tour event, starting a trend of women participating in men's professional events -- Suzy Whaley, Michelle Wie, Se Ri Pak, Laura Davies and Jan Stephenson all played against men at various tour stops around the world.

But the Skins Game is different. There are only four competitors and it is an unofficial event. Players wear microphones and are encouraged to exchange barbs for the benefit of television viewers, which should be no problem for the three other golfers -- noted wisecrackers Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Mark O'Meara.

It also offers Sorenstam a better chance of success. She tied for 96th in a field of 110 during her foray to the Colonial in May, but she won't have to play better than the other players for a full tournament to win this weekend. She'll only have to be best on one hole.

"Anything can happen in the Skins format," Sorenstam said. "I think that whether it's a man or a woman or good player or not, because you can play really good, but if you birdie the right hole, that's where you win the Skins. So it is type of a gambling format and I think, therefore, I might have a bigger chance."

Sorenstam has already played against men in a Skins Game this year. Two weeks ago in Singapore, she took on Retief Goosen, Jesper Parnevik and Lam Chih Bing in the Tiger Skins. Goosen took overall top honors by winning $130,000 of the $180,000 at stake, but Sorenstam was second with five skins, good for $35,000.

At least one of her competitors acknowledged that if Sorenstam is on her game she might actually have an advantage in the skins format.

"In the Skins Game, you're so aggressive, and if you're not hitting the shots, you know, on one, two or three, then you get into a little panic mode," Couples said. "But for Annika, she hits the ball so solid, so straight, and she's very precise that I think she'll have no problem with any of this."

Most point to length off the tee as Sorenstam's biggest disadvantage. Her LPGA Tour-leading 269.7-yard average lags far behind Mickelson (306) and Couples (293.4), but compares favorably with O'Meara, the defending champion, who averaged 277.5 on the PGA Tour.

Trilogy will be set up at 7,085 yards -- almost identical to the 7,080-yard course at Colonial, where Sorenstam made two birdies in 36 holes.

Still, Couples, who played a practice round at Trilogy on Tuesday, said Sorenstam might be a six-iron to Couples' nine-iron on par-four approach shots. But he doesn't see that as a disadvantage.

"She's probably just as good with a six-iron as I am with an eight- or a nine-iron," he said.

Even though Sorenstam's appearance at the Colonial was largely considered a success and several players and tournament organizers have urged her to do it again, she repeatedly has said she will not play in another PGA Tour event. The Skins Game offers the chance to play against the guys in a more relaxed setting, something she eagerly anticipates.

"You know, I loved the Colonial," she said. "It was the greatest thing that happened to me golf-wise and I learned so much. It was really, really, really memorable. But I figure if I do it again, it won't be the same.

"This is my chance to play with the guys and I've always enjoyed that. And what I like the most is just the challenge that I've really, really got to play my best to even have a slight chance. And that pushes me."

But anyone who thinks that Sorenstam is playing the Skins Game as a publicity stunt or just for kicks and giggles, better think again.

"Of course, I want to have fun," she said. "But then, I'm also very competitive."

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