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FROM THE Back Tees
Seth Davis
May 26, 2003
After the heated, and often silly, debate over her playing the Colonial, Annika Sorenstam is at last ready to test herself against the men
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May 26, 2003

From The Back Tees

After the heated, and often silly, debate over her playing the Colonial, Annika Sorenstam is at last ready to test herself against the men

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When Annika Sorenstam arrived at Colonial Country Club this week, she found a greeting card waiting for her inside locker number 116. The card was put there by the locker's owner, Jeanette Widmer, a member of the club since 1942 who is lending the space to Sorenstam while she plays in the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial. "I don't use the locker much, so I figured Annika should have it," says Widmer, who hasn't played golf since she fell off a ladder and injured her back five years ago. Widmer also figured that the locker's location—back row by the showers—would provide Sorenstam with a modicum of privacy. As for the card, Widmer says, "I wanted to try to make her feel wanted."

Seeing as how her life has been devoid of greeting cards and welcome mats lately, Sorenstam undoubtedly appreciated the gesture. She knew she was bucking convention when she announced on Feb. 12 that she had accepted a sponsor's exemption into the Colonial, making her the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in 58 years. But could she have guessed that her decision would unleash so much small-mindedness?

For instance, Vijay Singh sparked a firestorm last week with a wholly specious threat: that he would withdraw from the Colonial if he were paired with Sorenstam during the first two rounds. Singh, who after winning the EDS Byron Nelson Championship on Sunday abruptly withdrew from the Colonial, citing fatigue, knew that as a two-time major winner, he is classified as a Category 1 player by the Tour and would be paired only with other Category 1 players for the first two rounds. Sorenstam, on the other hand, falls in the lowest class, Category 3, and would be assigned partners and tee times accordingly. Asked if Sorenstam's LPGA credentials might elevate her to a higher level, a PGA Tour official said flatly, "No. She has no status on our Tour."

Sorenstam wanted to play at Colonial because the par-70 course is shorter and tighter than most PGA Tour venues. (However, at 7,054 yards it's 496 yards longer than the longest LPGA course.) If she plays well, Colonial might forever be known as the course that's strong enough for a man but made for a woman. And if she makes the cut (over the last 10 years, the cut at Colonial has averaged 2� strokes over par), she'll run the risk of overstaying her welcome. "The members are excited she's coming, but when it gets down to it, a lot of them don't want to see her play on the weekend," says Jeff Elliott, the course superintendent.

There has been grumbling by the club's male membership—"The best thing about this is that it will all be over soon," says Bill Hanley, a member of the board of directors—but the female members are excited. "We're all thrilled she's coming," says Widmer. "The only reason those men [players] don't want her here is that she might beat them." Sorenstam generated more goodwill among the female membership when she played a practice round at Colonial on March 16. As she was autographing a hat for member Donna Thompson, someone told her that Thompson had won the women's club championship 14 times. "You should be signing my hat," Sorenstam said. Says Thompson, "She was very kind and gracious to everyone."

If nothing else, Sorenstam is giving the PGA Tour a rare opportunity to invoke its no-skirts rule. (No shorts, either; Sorenstam will have to slog through the Texas heat and humidity in slacks like everyone else.) She'll have around-the-clock security from Danny Coulson, the Tour's director of security, who usually provides the same service for Tiger Woods when he plays. While reporters will technically have the same access to the women's locker room as they do to the men's, they'll be asked to leave if Sorenstam doesn't want to answer their questions. The only other person allowed access is locker room attendant Rose Howard, whose good humor and attention to detail have made her a popular figure at the club since she started working there in 1991. Howard has arranged to have a fruit basket prepared for Sorenstam's arrival and will have fresh-cut flowers brought in daily. "Annika won't want for anything while she's here," Howard says. "She's in good hands with Rose."

Sorenstam's participation is viewed as a boon to Fort Worth, largely because it affords the residents a rare opportunity to stick it to nearby Dallas. Not only does Dallas usually get top billing in these parts, but also most years the Colonial is upstaged by the Nelson. That hasn't been the case this year. "I go into Dallas all the time for work, and those folks have bad attitudes," says Clayton Baker, 41, a Fort Worth resident and a field service manager for Southwest Office System. "They want things to happen fast over there. Fort Worth people are nicer, more laid-back."

Many of the people who run the Nelson look down their noses at the Colonial. "If what they wanted to do was to generate some interest in their tournament, then they achieved their intention," says Frank Houseman, a former president of the Salesmanship Club, which runs the Nelson. "We're not jealous because it's not something we would have done."

If there's one group in golf from which Sorenstam might have expected support, it would be the LPGA tour—but she hasn't gotten universal backing from that quarter either. "I don't see how this will help the women's tour," says LPGA player Kelli Kuehne. "If she doesn't make the cut, then people will say, 'See? She couldn't even compete with a mediocre men's field.' Then we'll have to deal with the backlash." Beth Daniel, who played in a few events for the men's team at Furman, calls Sorenstam's decision "good for golf" but adds, "I'm a big believer in letting the men play with the men and letting the women play with the women."

In fact, Sorenstam's PGA Tour plunge isn't likely to change much. The only other LPGA tour player who has said she would consider teeing it up against the men is four-time major winner Se Ri Pak of South Korea. Pak has received no invitations, so the next domino might not fall until Michelle Wie, the 13-year-old phenom from Hawaii, is old enough to pursue her stated goal of playing on the PGA Tour. (Last Thursday, Wie accepted a sponsor's exemption into the Sept. 18-21 Albertsons Boise Open, a stop on the Nationwide tour, a feeder circuit for the PGA Tour.) Asked if he believes Sorenstam's Colonial appearance will start a trend, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says, "I don't know. All I know is that we have one woman playing one tournament one time."

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