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Sorenstam faces third leg in quest for elusive grand slam

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The star has the first two jewels in hand as the U.S. Open begins today.

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. -- Annika Sorenstam engaged in a friendly match Wednesday at Cherry Hills, trying her best to treat this U.S. Women's Open like any other week instead of such a grand occasion.

"Let's go, you've got to make some birdies," she teased Lorena Ochoa on the par-3 sixth tee. "I'm going to have to send you an invoice."

Ochoa pulled her tee shot into the rough. Sorenstam's shot never left the flag.

But when she settled into her chair before a room crammed with reporters and television cameras, Sorenstam was reminded that this is no ordinary week. Having already won the first two major championships of the year, Sorenstam has reached a critical juncture in her quest for the Grand Slam.

"This is a great challenge for me. This is a true test for me, to see if I can handle it," she said. "This is the challenge I've been looking for, and it's all about controlling your emotions and your shots out there."

Adding to the drama is the historical significance of Cherry Hills.

It was on this tree-lined course 45 years ago that Arnold Palmer charged from behind to win the U.S. Open, which inspired him to resurrect the concept of a Grand Slam -- winning all four majors in one year.

Palmer never got it done, losing by one shot at the British Open.

Mickey Wright, Jack Nicklaus, Pat Bradley and Tiger Woods all got halfway there when circumstances intervened, whether it was their own errant shots, bad weather or great golf by someone else.

Bradley recalled a week at the 1986 U.S. Women's Open in which there was a chemical spill near the course that kept players from returning to their hotel, and a tornado. Palmer dealt with torrential rain that canceled a round. Woods ran into raging winds at Muirfield, sending him to an 81.

"To win the slam, you have to be able to control yourself," Palmer said Wednesday morning from his office in Latrobe, Pa. "Then there are outside factors you have no control over, that people don't think about. You've just got to hope they work out for you.

"Unquestionably, she's got the golf," Palmer said. "As long as she keeps her cool, I think she can do it."

There is little evidence anyone can stop her.

Sorenstam built a five-shot lead at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and won by eight. Two weeks ago the LPGA Championship, she again led by five shots after 54 holes and was never seriously challenged. The best anyone could do was Michelle Wie, a 15-year-old who hits prodigious drives but still isn't old enough to drive a car.

Cherry Hills presents a different test.

The rough is thicker than anything the women saw at Mission Hills or Bulle Rock, sites of the first two majors. The greens were still relatively soft Wednesday, but the targets are smaller than they seem because of the slope. At 6,749 yards, this is the longest course in Women's Open history.

In other words, it's perfect for Sorenstam.

"She'll be tough to be beat," Laura Davies said. "I'm sure she was pleased when she saw this for the first time, because it's right up her alley. It favors accuracy and length, and that's her forte. If she can blow away the field, this is the golf course she can do it on."

The greatest challenge might be the pressure.

Sorenstam laid out her grand plans a year ago -- she wanted to be the first player, male or female, to win the four professional majors in the same year -- before failing to win the first one.

Now that she has won the first two, she has become increasingly aware of the history she can make.

"I'm only halfway," she said. "These next two are going to be the toughest two."

Asked later what made the U.S. Women's Open and the Women's British Open next month at Royal Birkdale the toughest two legs of the Grand Slam, she quickly replied, "Because the pressure is building."

She is certainly no stranger to pressure.

There was a time two years ago when Sorenstam wasn't sure she could lift her 4-wood off the ground as she stood on the 10th tee at Colonial, some 10,000 people gathered around to see her become the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour.

In many respects, her missed cut at Colonial prepared her for times like these.

The 34-year-old Swede has won 19 of 38 times on the LPGA Tour since Colonial, and five of the last nine majors. She has looked unbeatable at times this year, winning six of her eight starts.

But respect and appreciation should not be mistaken for a white flag of surrender.

Meg Mallon found the secret to beating Sorenstam last year at the Women's Open, closing with a 65 at the Orchards for a two-shot victory. Juli Inkster got it done three years ago at Prairie Dunes, shooting a 66 in the final round to go from a two-shot deficit to a two-shot victory.

"Every player out here is a great player," Mallon said. "They just have to figure out how they're going to play great themselves. That's what I did so well last year. That's how players have to approach it. They can't start playing another player, especially in golf."

Then again, Sorenstam keeps taking her game to new heights.

Her golf is robotic at times, an amazing display of fairways and greens. She has practiced with Tiger Woods to put imagination into her short game and adding more distance between herself and those trying to chase her.

"She finds her weaknesses and makes them better," Mallon said. "She was good, but she made herself great."

Over the next four days, Sorenstam will find out if she can continue her quest to be simply grand.


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