Even if it wasn't on the level, Annika Sorenstam's stunning victory in last week's U.S. Women's Open Championship left onlookers certain they had glimpsed the real thing. After all, only a genuine talent could have outplayed two LPGA Hall of Famers and a former Women's Open champ under Open pressure. Only a straight shooter could have shrugged off stances that resembled teeterboards and putts that seemed to break uphill. Only a 24-year-old with true grit and the right stuff and dead aim and...well, let first-round leader Jill Briles-Hinton say it: "When I'm struggling with my swing," the nine-year tour veteran said last week, "I watch Annika."
Sorenstam, one of a growing number of Swedish-born stars on the LPGA Tour, won her first American pro tournament and the most prestigious title in women's golf on Sunday, firing a two-under-par 68 for a 278 total. The former University of Arizona star and 1991 NCAA champion did it on a revered track, the Broadmoor Golf Club's East Course in Colorado Springs. She did it with three of the game's best players—Pat Bradley, Betsy King and Meg Mallon—bearing clown on her like a Rocky Mountain thunderstorm. She did it with the biggest gallery in Women's Open history looking on. And she did it with sunglasses perched on her cap for half the round, as if she had just ducked into a deli for a sandwich.
Sorenstam seems just a child. She speaks fluent English, but in a tiny voice. She rolls her eyes like a teenager when flustered. After her victory, as she talked on the phone with her parents in Stockholm, she wept—dropping a wet tissue into the championship cup at her feet. But for four rounds Sorenstam played with a maturity beyond her years, and when she was through, she was the sixth foreign winner in the tournament's 50-year history and the first since countrywoman Liselotte Neumann won in 1988.
More than any recent Women's Open, this one required course-management skills of the highest order. The 6,398-yard Broadmoor East Course, built on the lower slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, is actually a composite course. Nine of the holes (1-6, 16-18) were designed by legendary golf architect Donald Ross, a minimalist; the rest, above a roadway, owe their more dramatic looks to Robert Trent Jones, the dean of giantism. All the holes, however, lean toward Goodland, Kans., and the tilt, combined with the thin air at 6,500 feet, forces golfers to crunch a bunch of numbers—adding 10% to 15% carry for most full shots, for instance, or addressing a 20-foot putt and pretending it's a two-footer. "You're not seeing these breaks," said Rosie Jones, who tied for fifth. "You're feeling them with your feet as you walk up."
Under such conditions, victory goes not to the strongest or the steadiest of nerve, but to the most disciplined. The prudent shot, on most holes, was away from the flag and below the hole, and players who got frisky with the pin saw their hopes fade in a flurry of three-putts. Said LPGA champion Kelly Robbins, who wouldn't let her caddie help her read the sloping greens, "One guess is enough for both of us."
It was almost as hard to read the portents. After two rounds—which took the two scheduled days plus two hours of Saturday morning, thanks to a Friday-afternoon thunderstorm—eight players shared the lead at two under par. The most intriguing was Dawn Coe-Jones, who played with her shirttail out to accommodate a 6�-month pregnancy. Leta Lindley was also in her third trimester-not pregnant, but 7� months into her rookie season. A four-time All-America (and Sorenstam's teammate at Arizona), Lindley, 23, finished tied for fifth and smiled so winningly that outgoing LPGA commissioner Charles Mechem said, "If I were going to adopt another daughter, I think it would be Leta.
With all that talk of parenting, there should have been room for 56-year-old JoAnne (Big Momma) Carner, but she missed the Open cut for the first time in 26 appearances. "It's a little odd checking on flights out of town on Friday," said Carner, who won the Open in 1971 and '76.
What had been a muddle seemed to sort itself out on Saturday, as Mallon matched Briles-Hinton's two-day-old course-record 66 to take a two-stroke lead over Julie Larsen. A winner of the LPGA Championship and the Women's Open in her best year, 1991, Mallon is known as a strong finisher. But on Sunday she put her tee shot on the 139-yard par-3 4th hole into a pond and made triple bogey. Eight pairings ahead, King already had birdied four of her first five holes. Bradley, Larsen, and Sorenstam joined Mallon and King in a five-way tie at the top.
Sorenstam, benefiting from the experience of having won two recent European tour events, then birdied 9, 10 and 11, looking immune to the pressure. (Actually, she said afterward, her hands shook on every putt.) After bogeys on 15 and 16, Sorenstam saw her three-shot lead dwindle to one, and when she struggled to make a par on the benign par-5 17th, it seemed that she might fold. But she scrambled for par there and coolly two-putted for par on the final hole. Minutes later, Mallon, the only player with a chance to force an 18-hole playoff, missed a 20-foot birdie putt at 18. Mallon finished at 279, a stroke ahead of King and Bradley.
Although hardly unknown, having won LPGA Rookie of the Year honors last season, Sorenstam struck some observers as unknowable. "Sweet and shy," television's Judy Rankin told viewers, "a bit of a loner." Even Sorenstam's fianc�, golf-equipment rep David Esch, admitted he didn't know who Annika was when they met two years ago.