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HER BEST SHOT
Michael Bamberger
June 02, 2003
Under extraordinary scrutiny, Annika Sorenstam put her game up against the men's at the Colonial and left with thousands of new fans
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June 02, 2003

Her Best Shot

Under extraordinary scrutiny, Annika Sorenstam put her game up against the men's at the Colonial and left with thousands of new fans

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For two days a woman golfer played an ordinary PGA Tour event and turned it into something major. She played with the men, from their tees, for their money, and everywhere you went, people were talking about it, including in the men's locker room of the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, where a PGA Tour event has been played since 1946, when the Tour was more bawdy and guys drank well into the night.

As Annika Sorenstam, fit and muscular and erect, came off the 18th green last Friday, her eyes were blurry from tears and exhaustion. She had shot an assembly-line 71 in Thursday's opening round of the Bank of America Colonial, an exhibition of control and precision on the fabled par-70 course. She had just holed a 14-footer for par on Friday for a loose 74 that would have been worse in the hands of a golfer less composed and not as tough. Golf undresses a man—that's what they used to say.

Five over par for two rounds, with scores of cameras, hundreds of reporters, thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers watching her every shot and fist pump. The 32-year-old Swedish golfer, winner of 43 LPGA events since 1995, beat some of the boys, but too few to make the 36-hole cut, which she missed by four shots. In the plush men's locker room a small group of players watched her finish on a gigantic TV. "Give her five more tournaments, she could make a cut," said Esteban Toledo, a Mexican golfer who came up on the game's dirt paths.

In the weeks leading to the tournament Sorenstam kept saying she was playing in the Colonial for herself, to test her game on a big-time course and against a big-time field. She played against Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garc�a, Nick Price and 107 other male golfers, 11 of whom she ended up beating.

It turned out to be much more than a solo test flight. After two days and 36 holes and 145 shots, she threw her game ball to a random fan in the stands, who jumped up and down jubilantly with it. He had Annika Sorenstam's golf ball! She had done something over two rounds that she had not accomplished in more than nine years on the LPGA tour: She had played her way into our imaginations. The support from her massive galleries was heartfelt, and in the fading light of a muggy Friday afternoon Sorenstam had figured out why. "Because I'm living the dream I want to live," she said, choking on her words. "I'm doing what I want to do." She was thinking about the possible and got us thinking that way too.

There were many people, and for a day Vijay Singh was their courageous, pigheaded and lonely spokesman, who didn't believe a woman should be invited to play in a PGA Tour event, even though the tournament sponsor had 12 exemptions to dole out and even though the Tour has no gender constraints in its bylaws. Sorenstam ignored the doubters and kept plugging along.

Throughout her career Sorenstam has been a plugger, a model technician. On Thursday she was that and she was more. She began her round, on the par-4, 404-yard 10th hole, with a queasy stomach and wobbly knees and perspiring hands and a textbook par. She unleashed a 243-yard four-wood, hit a piercing 139-yard nine-iron, rolled her 16-foot birdie putt smoothly and tapped in. It wasn't enough. By the end of the day the field would average 3.938 on that hole. She made a perfect par, and it set her back. Golf's brutal.

But more than she ever had before, Sorenstam exposed her personality to the public. She did a mock stumble after that opening tee shot, not as an actress—there is nothing theatrical in her or her golf game—but to express what she was feeling. The moment was big, bigger than her and bigger than she had expected. She was the first woman to play a PGA Tour event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in the Tucson Open in 1945. Martha Burk's protest at Augusta in April, that was a media circus. This was not. This was an athlete pushing herself, in a packed arena she had never performed in before.

Her playing partners, Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson, are warm human beings. (Barber was also playing on a sponsor's exemption.) They say on Tour that every shot, good or bad, makes somebody happy, but in the Sorenstam-Barber-Wilson group, that wasn't true. "Remember," Barber said to Wilson before they began play, "we're in this together." He and Wilson were the anti-Singhs. They high-fived Sorenstam when she hit good shots, suffered with her when she hit poor ones and hugged her when it was over.

The Thursday round was played in a dream state. The spectators following Sorenstam were mostly older folks, golfers, still and silent when the marshals signaled for quiet. As Sorenstam prepared to drive on the 9th tee—the last hole of her Thursday round—a little breeze brought a flurry of white fluffy Cottonwood seeds. She was even par for the day just then and hit another pure tee shot. She followed it with a sweet-spot seven-iron that pitched near the hole and trickled over the green. Then she putted when she needed to chip. With a tuft of grass behind the ball, any PGA Tour player would have tried to get the ball in the air rather than rolling it. But Sorenstam, unsure of her nerves and her ability, chose the most cautious of shots and ran it eight feet past the hole. She missed the ensuing putt and made a bogey.

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