SI Vault
John Garrity
April 08, 2002
As a ruby-slippered Annika Sorenstam won her second straight Nabisco Championship, the party raged a click of the heels away (Page G78)
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April 08, 2002

Red Alert

As a ruby-slippered Annika Sorenstam won her second straight Nabisco Championship, the party raged a click of the heels away (Page G78)

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It's easy to describe the shoes Annika Sorenstam wore on Easter Sunday. They were blood-red, high-gloss Nike slip-ons with soft spikes. The tongues looked like they'd been ripped out of the mouths of panting cartoon dogs, and the mirror finish suggested six coats of polyurethane. "I thought my shoes were cool," said an envious Liselotte Neumann.

It's harder to describe what Sorenstam did in those shoes. Her four major championship victories have had a methodical quality to them, as if she were an upholsterer tacking fabric to a chair. Her win last weekend, her second straight at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was typical Sorenstam. She went around the par-72,6,520-yard Dinah Shore Tournament course at Mission Hills Country Club in 68 strokes and zero mistakes. It wasn't only the shoes that made Neumann envious; it was Sorenstam's high-gloss game. "Annika plays like that every day, every week," said Neumann, a 35-year-old Swede who played her best golf only to finish second, a stroke behind the equally Swedish 31-year-old Sorenstam.

So it comes back to the shoes. Sorenstam seemed to be making a statement by playing the final round in boats that would make Elton John frown, shoes that she'd never even worn before Sunday. Were they victory totems, like Tiger Woods's red shirts? Were they meant to distract or intimidate archrival Karrie Webb, who shared the third-round lead with Sorenstam and Neumann? Were they special? Did they make her more glamorous, like Cinderella's slippers, or weightless, like the young Michael Jordan's sneakers?

"These shoes, I really don't know why I put them on," Sorenstam said. "I was thinking about changing after the turn because I became quite distracted. Every time I stood over a putt, I saw these little red toes, and it made me smile."

You can buy that if you want, but everybody knows it's little red numbers that make Sorenstam, a four-time LPGA Player of the Year, grin. By vanquishing a strong field in the first major of the season, she gave notice that 2002 could be a reprise of '01, when she won eight LPGA events, shot a tour-record 59 in Phoenix, topped the money list, won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and generally left everybody choking on her dust. This year Sorenstam has already beaten Webb in a playoff in the Australian Ladies Masters, finished first, second, tied for seventh and first in four LPGA events and taken a full stroke lead on runner-up Lori Kane in the Vare standings.

No wonder so many other players wished they were in Sorenstam's shoes. Rosie Jones, for instance: At the Kraft Nabisco the wiry, perpetually wound-up 42-year-old Jones did what she has been doing in majors throughout her 20-year pro career. She scrapped, scraped and scrambled. She dogged the leaders for 72 holes. She held the best press conferences. ("Old? she said, when asked how she thought she was perceived by fans. "Short. Feisty.") And in the end she wound up where she always winds up: on another player's heels. "I'm mad!" Jones blurted last week when reminded that she had a dozen tour wins but only a remarkable 21 top 10 finishes to show for 75 majors. "It's not going to make or break my career, but [winning one] sure would prove something to people who maybe don't think I have the game." Jones had the game, all right, but her final-round 69 in Rancho Mirage left her tied for third, two strokes behind Sorenstam.

Then you had Lorena Ochoa, the 20-year-old amateur from Guadalajara, Mexico. Ochoa is just a sophomore at Arizona, and she has a swing tic—on the downswing it looks as if she is trying to crush a bug between her right cheek and her shoulder—but she's having the greatest season in the history of college golf. Asked Sunday if she thought she could extend her string of six consecutive college wins through the four events left on her schedule, including the NCAA championships, she nodded and said, "Yes, that's my goal." Asked what her goal had been for the week of the Kraft Nabisco, she added, "To win the tournament. I always play to win."

Rounds of 75 and 69 earned Ochoa a third-round pairing with Sorenstam, who had to be impressed with the kid's footwork—and by the fact that they shot the same score, 71. On Sunday, Ochoa's aggressive play carried her to within two strokes of the lead after eight holes, but then she went three over in the next five holes to fall out of contention. Then she knocked her 137-yard eight-iron approach at 16 into the hole for an eagle and birdied the 18th while about 25 relatives from Mexico and the American Southwest added a little jalape�o to the cheers from the grandstands. "She's fun to play with," said caddie Colin Cann, who was carrying for Se Ri Pak. "She's Sergio all over." That's Sergio as in Garc�a, the Spaniard who was a teenager when he caught the world's attention by challenging Tiger Woods in the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship.

Ochoa, who's expected to turn pro this summer, studied Sorenstam and Pak with more than academic interest. "I know I need to work a lot on my emotions," she said after her roller-coaster 70 in the final round. "Players who have been here for years know how to manage them. Me, I'm new. It'll take a little time." Did her eighth-place finish—the best result by an amateur in the Kraft Nabisco since Caroline Keggi came in fourth in 1988—make Ochoa think she was ready to take on the LPGA's best? She smiled and swung a bottle of water back and forth like a pendulum. "I found out I can play at the same level," she said. "That's not a big deal anymore."

Sorenstam would have understood. In the late 1980s, when she was a mere gleam in the eye of the Swedish Golf Federation, Sorenstam, too, had a terrific player against whom to measure herself: Liselotte Neumann. "When I grew up, she was the greatest Swedish player," Sorenstam said on Sunday. "She was huge at home." Sorenstam was 17 when Neumann, then an LPGA rookie, won the 1988 U.S. Open at Baltimore Country Club by three strokes over Patty Sheehan, but Neumann had previously won two Swedish Amateur titles and several European pro events. "I was a little girl then," Sorenstam said, "but I realized that I could come play, which is what I wanted to do some day."

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