Two down, two to go, and a true-to-life rival has arrived. That's the skinny on Annika Sorenstam's three-shot victory at the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., last week, a tournament Sorenstam seemingly had wrapped up by Saturday evening, when she left the course holding a five-shot lead. Since Sorenstam had a streak going of 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s--an LPGA record--and is playing the best golf of her phenomenal career, most of her pursuers admitted, with a round to play, that they were now vying for second place.
Looking cool in the sweltering 92� heat on Sunday, with only eight holes to play, Sorenstam had extended her lead to eight shots--the exact margin of her victory at the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Then she pretended to be human. Having made only four bogeys in the first three rounds over Pete Dye's challenging 6,486-yard, par-72 track, Sorenstam went into the golfing equivalent of a prevent defense and made four more bogeys over the final eight holes, ending her record streak (68-67-69-73--277) while coasting to her second major title of 2005. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Michelle Wie found the putting stroke that had eluded her all week and rolled in a couple of late birdies to shoot her fourth consecutive sub-par round (69-71-71-69) and finish alone in second, a respectable three strokes back.
The present and future of women's golf--think of Arnold Palmer winning his only U.S. Open, in 1960 at Cherry Hills, over a young amateur named Jack Nicklaus--had made separate but equal statements. One declared that she is gloriously in her prime, and the other announced that she is getting ready to knock down the door.
Make no mistake, this tournament was never close to getting away from Sorenstam. If she hadn't played the par-5s in a mind-boggling three over par (Wie, who is actually a little shorter off the tee than Sorenstam, played the four par-5s in five under), it might have been a record-setting blowout. Focused on her stated goal of winning all four majors this year--Sorenstam is the first woman to win the initial two since Pat Bradley in 1986--the 34-year-old Swede is in total control of her game. Statistically, she's first on tour in driving distance (274.0) and in greens hit in regulation (.753), and second in putts per greens in regulation (1.72).
"It's almost as if she's toying with us, like a cat playing with a mouse," says Laura Davies, the long-hitting Englishwoman who tied for third at six under. "Annika's the best golfer who ever played, man or woman. She's dusting us every week."
The win was Sorenstam's third straight at the LPGA Championship, her ninth major (tying her with her practice-round pal, Tiger Woods), her 62nd career win and her sixth W in eight starts this year. Since the beginning of the 2004 season, Sorenstam has won 14 of 26 starts. Since teeing it up against the men at the Colonial in '03, she's won exactly half--19 of 38--of the events she's entered. Houston, we have achieved separation. Her dominance over her fellow pros even leaves the shy Sorenstam at a loss for words. "I have to pinch myself sometimes when I see my results," she said on Sunday. "I get overwhelmed when I look at my bio in the [ LPGA media guide]. I'm a little girl from Sweden who came over here to follow my dreams and try to win a few tournaments."
Yes, and Wayne Gretzky was a little boy from Ontario. Next week Sorenstam, who's anything but shy about her ambitions, will tackle the next leg of the Grand Slam by trying to win her third U.S. Open at--drumroll, please-- Cherry Hills, outside Denver, a historically delicious coincidence. If she succeeds, she'll go to the Women's British Open at Royal Birkdale, July 28-31, trying to do what no pro golfer has ever done: sweep the majors in a single year.
A certain six-foot, 15-year-old phenom will be at both venues trying to stop her. "She's put a lot of pressure on herself," said the precocious Wie, stylishly attired in her Nike "power fuchsia" golf shirt on Sunday. "She can have three [majors], and I'll take the other. All the other players are going to practice really hard to try to beat her."
Wie, for one, is working out with a trainer two hours a day, adding muscle to her lanky frame in an effort to add another 10 to 15 yards to her already mammoth drives. She averaged 283.8 yards off the tee at Bulle Rock, third behind Davies (289.25) and Sorenstam (286.4). Wie has accepted an invitation to compete at a PGA Tour event July 7-10, the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., and, she says, "I want to be up there with the big dogs."
Such bravado from a high school junior has not exactly endeared Wie to the sisterhood on the tour. In the 51-year history of the LPGA Championship, which is, after all, a tournament for pro golfers, an amateur had never been invited. Then this year the good folks at McDonald's (I'm lovin' it!) strong-armed tour officials to invite Wie (or we'll be leavin' it!).