Sorenstam Still Goes for Goal

Times Staff Writer

The contenders are out in full force as the Kraft Nabisco Championship gets underway today at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage -- a cart full of teenagers being billed as the future of the tour.

But this is a major championship, so while Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer have generated much of the buzz early in the LPGA Tour season, it's time to turn the attention to a player who has actually won a major.

Nine of them, to be exact.

Annika Sorenstam, one of the most decorated women golfers of all time with 67 career victories, has somehow managed to slip under the marketing radar in the early season even though she already has a victory under her belt.

She is the defending champion this week after a runaway eight-shot victory a year ago, is 21 victories short of Kathy Whitworth's career LPGA victory record and ranks fifth on the all-time major championship victory list.

She's also not shy about setting lofty goals.

There is one goal she has carried into each of the last three seasons, one she reiterated Wednesday: win all four major championships.

That can't happen, of course, without a Kraft Nabisco victory, and Sorenstam said the first thing she must do is conquer her nerves.

"I'm sure I'll be nervous," she said. "It's still the excitement of being part of something big. I've set some lofty goals.... I think it's just natural to be nervous."

She will take on a golf course where she has won three times in five years. The rough is up to major-championship standards and the traditionally fast greens are running a little faster than normal.

She also will take on 99 competitors, each of whom would like nothing more than to knock off the reigning queen of the LPGA.

Creamer, 19, and Lorena Ochoa, 24, have to be considered the most likely of the young guns to dethrone Sorenstam this week. Creamer has two LPGA victories and Ochoa has three, but both are seeking their first majors.

Wie, 16, and Pressel, 17, are seeking their first professional victories, though they both contended in majors last year. Wie was second at the LPGA Championship and tied for third at the Women's British Open; Pressel was runner-up at the U.S. Women's Open -- the victim of Birdie Kim's unlikely holed-out sand shot.

There is also Grace Park, who won in 2004 and tied for fifth last year despite a bothersome sore back. Veteran Juli Inkster is coming off a victory two weeks ago in Phoenix -- her 31st career victory -- and is a two-time Kraft Nabisco champion.

Laura Diaz and Christie Kerr, who tied for third last year, have eight career victories between them and are scurrying to win their first majors before they are saddled with the dreaded best-player-not-to-win-a-major label.

And don't forget the contingent of 21 South Koreans. Joo Mi Kim and Meena Lee have won this year and Seon Hwa Lee ranks second on the 2006 money list after two runner-up finishes in four events.

But the clear favorite is Sorenstam, who last year joined Betsy King and Amy Alcott as the only three-time winners of the event.

When Sorenstam first revealed her grand slam goal in 2004, the dream was short-lived because she finished tied for 13th at the Kraft Nabisco. Last year, she won the first two majors of the season before a tie for 23rd at the U.S. Open.

This year, she said she hopes to get off to a good start and keep building momentum throughout the tournament.

"A lot of times I come into an event as ready as I can be and it might not flow," she said. "I might not find the rhythm and then I try even harder and it gets worse."

While lofty goals keep Sorenstam motivated, she acknowledged that she sometimes puts too much pressure on herself.

"I've gotten in my way a few times at big tournaments because I really want it so badly that I try too hard and build up a lot of tension," she said.

And the competition never lets up.

Creamer, for one, likes to talk about the gap between Sorenstam and the rest of the tour. While that gap may be closing, Sorenstam is doing everything she can to make sure that gap remains.

"I know she's working just as hard as I am, so I have to work harder to get where she's at," Creamer said.

One way to do that, she said, is to stare down Sorenstam in the final group Sunday.

"That's what I want," Creamer said. "If I'm coming Sunday and it's Annika and me, that's great. I'm excited. I'm not nervous or anything, that's what I would prefer."

Sorenstam, who has dominated women's golf for five years without a serious rival, welcomes the new challengers.

"I'm very competitive," she said. "I'd do anything to beat them all."

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