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Annika Sorenstam Tees Off in PGA Event

Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam has played an 18 hole practice round Wednesday afternoon in her final preparation for the Colonial Open golf tournament in Fort Worth, Texas.

Sorenstam will become the first woman in 58 years to play in a PGA Tour men's event Thursday morning. Sorenstam will tee off at 13:58 UTC with a pair of American rookies in Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber.

They will tee off from the 10th hole on Thursday and begin their second round Friday afternoon off the first tee. The players with the low 70 scores and anyone tied at that number after the first two rounds will make the cut and get to play on the weekend.

Annika Sorenstam's intention is not to test men against women, but to test herself personally.

"I've pushed myself in the gym, I 've pushed myself on the golf course, and now I get an opportunity to play the best men in the world, and I figured this would really test me, and this would really push me to work harder, and also play under tough circumstances," said Annika Sorenstam. "And that's what I call a test, to see if I can handle everything and also see if I can play my best game under really tough circumstances."

Annika Sorenstam, 32, has won 43 tournaments and millions of dollars in nearly a decade playing on the women's golf tour, of LPGA. She was dominating last year when she won 13 times, the most by a woman in nearly 40 years, and winning close to $3 million.

Now, Sorenstam is doing something no woman has done in 58 years: playing in an official men's PGA Tour event. The last woman to do it was American Babe Didrikson Zaharias at the 1945 Los Angeles Open.

Sorenstam received what is known as a "sponsor's exemption" to play in the Colonial tournament here in Fort Worth, Texas. It means she was invited to play against the men without having to qualify. Men are not allowed to play on the women's professional golf circuit.

When Sorenstam's agent made it known that she would like to test her skills against the men - an idea her husband David Esch supports - Annika received a number of offers from PGA tournament directors. She chose the Colonial because she believed it best suited her game.

"This is a very tricky golf course, don't get me wrong," she said. "But it's a golf course where strength and distance is not as important as all the other tournaments that the guys play. This is more of what I call where you need course management. There are a lot of dog legs [bends in the fairways] where I'm sure some of the guys hit irons off the tee. It's more placement than just hitting a long drive on your first shot."

And that is key for Annika Sorenstam because she knows, even after undergoing a lot of strength training in the last couple of years, top women golfers can not hit the ball as far as the top men. It's why men are not permitted to compete on the women's tour.

The Swedish star drives the ball an average of 275 yards (or 251 meters). The long-hitting men golfers often reach more than 300 yards (or 274 meters). This week Sorenstam is playing this Colonial course that is nearly 600 yards longer (or 550 meters longer) than the courses on which the major women's golf tournaments are played. But it is shorter than the typical men's course and is a par 70, while most men's courses are par 72.

Sorenstam's landmark appearance here is drawing huge interest from around the world. Nearly 600 media credentials were issued to cover this tournament, or more than three times the usual number. It's become more than just a sports story, especially in light of the controversy surrounding last month's Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, which is played at a golf club that has refused to admit any women members.

Sorenstam knows she must try not to think about all the attention she is drawing.

"I'm going to have my hands full whatever happens," she said. "I'm just going to try to focus on my own game, play one shot at a time. You know, I have respect for all the guys who are here, so I'm looking forward to playing with them."

Many of the men do not share that same feeling. Fourth-ranked Vijay Singh of Fiji, had been the most outspoken, but then he withdrew from the Colonial after winning last week's Byron Nelson tournament in nearby Irving, Texas. He said he needed time off. Men's number-one player, Tiger Woods of the United States, also is not here after playing this past week in Germany. But he supports Sorenstam's desire to play against the men and said she should test herself in four or five PGA events.

Most of the women professional golfers also support Sorenstam, including Australian Karrie Webb, who was the top LPGA player in 1999 and 2000.

"I think Annika's trying to keep motivating herself," she said. "I don't know how long she thought about playing on the PGA Tour. But you know the distance she's picked up and the confidence. To me, I think it's the right time for her to do it if she's ever going to do it because she's riding on such a huge wave on confidence. She's playing really well."

The question is, is Annika Sorenstam playing well enough to be competitive here with the men. Only the top scorers advance after the first two rounds (Thursday and Friday), or 36 holes. All eyes be anxious to see if she can score better than enough men to make the halfway cut and play all four rounds. She has not been bold enough to predict she has a chance of winning.