Sports Watch

Bill Kwon

By Bill Kwon

Tuesday, February 16, 1999

Swedish sweep sign
of times in the LPGA

HOW Swede it is on the LPGA Tour.

When Sweden's Catrin Nilsmark, Annika Sorenstam and Liselotte Neumann finished 1-2-3 in last week's Valley of the Stars Championship, it probably set an LPGA first, according to Neumann.

"I think that's the first that ever happened," Neumann said. An American top-three finish, sure. But one by a foreign country? Neumann doubts it and she knows it's a first by Sweden.

"I don't think it'll be the last," added Nilsmark. No, she's not bragging or anything. After all, last week was her first tour victory in 83 starts.

Nilsmark hopes that her break-through victory is the first of many. But her confidence of more Swede sweeps to come is based on the continued success of Sorenstam, Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, who finished sixth last week.

"Annika will always be up there. Liselotte and Helen, too," Nilsmark said.

They are among 12 Swedes on the LPGA roster this year. Eight of them are here for the 54-hole Sunrise Hawaiian Ladies Open beginning today at the Kapolei Golf Course.

ANNIKA'S not here, but her sister, Carlotta, is. The other five Swedes, besides Nilsmark and Neumann, are Eva Dahllof, Asa Gottino, Sophie Gustafson, Maria Hjorth and Carin Koch.

Why the successful Swedish golf invasion of America?

"I'm not sure you can explain it easily," Nilsmark said. "There are different opinions, but I think it's a little bit of a coincidence and it's coming together at one time."

Obviously, a strong junior golf program is a must. And Neumann feels Sweden ranks among the best. She took up the game at the age of 10.

Neumann has played the most significant role in the growing popularity of women's golf in Sweden.

"Liselotte's winning the U.S. Open in 1988 inspired all of us," Nilsmark said. "We saw what she did, and we said to ourselves, 'she's one of us.' "

"Annika Sorenstam says that (Neumann's victory) was one of her inspirations," said Jim Ritts, the LPGA's outgoing commissioner.

In turn, Neumann said that her own role model was Britain's Laura Davies, who came over from the European women's tour to win the U.S. Women's Open the year before.

"I played a lot with Laura in Europe, and I sort of felt like, well, if she can do it, I could do it, too," Neumann said.

"I think this is a precursor of an increasing trend. Imagine how many 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds in Sweden are thinking they're going to be a future Annika or Liselotte or Helen," Ritts said.

"You see it happening in Australia because of Karrie Webb, in South Korea with Se Ri Pak and Grace Park, and in Japan with Akiko Fukushima coming over in the tradition of Ayako Okamoto."

WITH her victory last week, Nilsmark jumped from 17th to fourth on the money list with $125,092. A top-10 finish Saturday will earn enough to surpass the $137,505 she won in 21 events last year.

Finally winning, though, was the big thing for Nilsmark.

"You never know if you're ever going to win," she said. "Once you win, you know you've done it, so it should be easier the next time."

Annika knows how it's done, winning 16 times. Liselotte knows how, winning 12 times. Both have earned more than $3 million in coming over to the land of plenty money.

Meanwhile, the Swedes keep coming.

Two more from Sweden, Malin Burstrom and Pernilla Sterner, are were among the 16 non-Americans of the 29 tour rookies graduating from the latest Qualifying School.

"Yeah, I'm the old fart now," said Neumann, 32.

Bill Kwon has been writing
about sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1959.

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