ASSOCIATED PRESS / 2002
Annika Sorenstam is trying to chase down Lorena Ochoa for the world's No. 1 ranking. She starts today at the SBS Open.
Sorenstam faces early test in bid for No. 1 ranking
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Annika Sorenstam will find out in a hurry today whether she's ready to challenge for the world No. 1-ranking once more.
The Swedish star began 2008 in today's first round of the $1.1 million SBS Open paired with defending champion Paula Creamer and first-time winner Natalie Gulbis.
The group right behind this talented threesome is defending Kraft Nabisco Championship winner Morgan Pressel, world No. 2 Suzann Pettersen and defending Fields Open champion Stacy Prammanasudh.
It's the first time Sorenstam has played the Arnold Palmer-designed course at Turtle Bay, but the difficult par-72 layout suits here game just fine.
"Anything can happen here," Sorenstam said. "You can tee off in the morning and there's no wind and you come to a hole and the wind will pick up. You have to pay attention to the grain here. Overall, it's windy here and that's the biggest factor.
"It's a great start to the season and to play well here, you have to make the shots. The way the greens are built, you have to have a good short game and feel around the green. It's a good golf course."
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Annika Sorenstam's golf bag is under the lights, waiting patiently for her to take it away from all this as a photographer shoots it from all angles.
The flash sequence is reminiscent of a star walking the red carpet at a world premier. The photographer suddenly stops, pulls the sand wedge up a little to stand above the rest of the clubs, then backs out as the flash sequence begins again. It's a good-looking bag, mostly white with sky blue and gray trim -- space-aged.
The front reads Annika in blue lettering, with Ginn Resort just to the side in black. On the side of the bag is Callaway Golf with Big Bertha getting her due in blue trim near the bottom. The strap is dominated by Fusion in black letters; it's an elegant version of a NASCAR machine, befitting the former No. 1 player in the world.
Sorenstam will rejoin the bag soon enough for this important photo shoot, but first she addressed the media at yesterday's press conference for the $1.1 million SBS Open that begins today.
The cynic would say the only reason Sorenstam is in Hawaii these next two weeks is to avoid the six-figure fine she would incur from the LPGA Tour. They call it the one-in-four rule that requires tour members to play in a scheduled event at least once every four years or pay a fine based on a percentage of the purse. In this case, it's about $50,000 for this week's SBS Open and another $50,000 for next week's Fields Open at Ko Olina.
And that's definitely a part of the decision process for the 37-year-old. As much money as Sorenstam has stuffed in her bag since turning pro in 1994, giving up that much hard-earned cash makes no sense to the Hall of Famer from Sweden.
But it's even more than that.
Sorenstam is coming off her worst campaign since her first tour of the LPGA circuit 14 years ago. Much like 2007, she went winless that 1994 season before embarking on a journey that few golfers have managed with 10 major titles and 69 career victories in a 12-year span.
When the current Rolex Rankings system was introduced nearly two seasons ago, Sorenstam had a huge lead, similar to what Tiger Woods has now on the PGA Tour. But with Lorena Ochoa's recent ascent and Sorenstam's nagging back and neck injuries, she lost that top spot to Ochoa last April.
And that, as much as anything, is motivating Sorenstam enough to not only be in Hawaii, but play in four of the first five events leading up to the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major.
Last year, Sorenstam suited up only 13 times. This year, that number will be closer to 20 for the aging star, who is determined to rise from her current No. 4 ranking to No. 1 worldwide once more. She'd like nothing better than to start this season with at least one win here to make a statement that she's a force to be reckoned with in 2008.
"I'm happy to be here," Sorenstam said. "Hawaii is a beautiful place; it's nice to come here to play golf. I'm excited about this season. Obviously, I'm leaving a season behind that I wasn't too excited about inside the ropes. I feel great; the injuries are in the past.
"I played well here in college (Arizona), I played well here early in my career (two wins) and the reason for not coming back was scheduling. It seems my season was so long. I end in November, December and I kind of wanted a little break. Now, I feel like I didn't play much last year and didn't need as long of a break, so I'm happy to be back.
"I'm getting there. I can practice as hard as I want in the gym, on the golf course and on the driving range. My motivation is back. I'm serious about this season. I want to play a full schedule for me. Then again, I'm going to take it a tournament at a time."
Unfortunately for Sorenstam, it won't be easy. Ochoa is at the top of her game, world No. 2 Suzann Pettersen has as much talent in her bag as anyone, and an old nemesis, Karrie Webb, is a solid No. 3. They give Sorenstam a big goal to meet, especially this late in her career.
While the men win regularly in their 40s, that statistic doesn't translate on this tour, where the average winner in 2007 was 26.5 years of age. Only one 40-year-old won once last year, giving Sorenstam a wake-up call that age matters for the women. What makes tracking down Ochoa so difficult is her consistency. She has finished in the top 10 in 41 of her last 50 tournaments.
"The competition, in general, is as good as it's ever been," Sorenstam said. "Last year and the year before, Lorena played fantastic golf, Suzann had a breakout season last year. Morgan (Pressel) won Kraft Nabisco and then, Cristie Kerr winning the U.S. Open, those are big wins.
"It's tough out here, no doubt about it. I'm just looking forward to playing my game. My goal is to play 'Annika golf.' So, we'll see where that takes me and where that leads."
For now, it leads back to her bag, which has grown weary of the attention. The photographer keeps pulling at it, trying to rearrange it like a woman fiddling with her hair, before finally calling it a day. Sorenstam gives it a good once-over, making sure everything's as it should be. After all, she has big plans for this bag, and it starts with today's opening round of the 2008 season.