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Annika Sorenstam Begins Landmark Golf Match, Thursday - 2003-05-22

Star Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam is scheduled to tee off in a U.S. men's PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Tour event Thursday in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Annika Sorenstam, 32, has won 43 tournaments in nearly a decade on the women's golf circuit. She was dominating last year when she won 13 times, 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. She received a sponsor's exemption to play here in the Colonial tournament, meaning she did not have to qualify.

Annika received a number of offers to compete in men's tour events this year. 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 [the type of layout] where you need good course management."

That means the emphasis is more on placement when hitting the ball off the tee rather hitting long drives. Her landmark appearance in Texas 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.

It's rained much of the past couple days here in Fort Worth, so she has not had much time to practice on this course. And she knows the wet conditions will be a factor.

"The course is obviously playing much longer [the ball won't roll as far on tee shots]. The only good news is that the greens are softer and I can fly [aim] more at the flags," she said. "So I'll do my best. I'm going to hit a few longer clubs than I expected, but luckily I've got them in my (golf) bag so we'll see what happens."

Because of the rain, Ms. Sorenstam was able to play only 10 holes Wednesday when the professionals were paired with amateurs, in what is called the Pro-Am. David Darnell was her amateur playing partner. He described playing with Annika as a lifetime experience.

"We had a lot of fun. We had a good time," he said. "And Annika played extremely well, under certainly tough conditions today with it wet and raining. But she hit it (the ball) strong and she was around the pin all day, and it was very impressive."

For her first two rounds here at the Colonial, Sorenstam is paired with two rookies on the PGA Tour, Americans Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber.

Wilson has had two top-ten finishes in 12 tournaments this year, while Barber has cracked the top-ten only once in 13 events. Sorenstam has been in the top-ten in all five LPGA events she has entered this season. The Swede has earnings this season of $555,000. That is more than $100,000 better than Wilson ($441,000) and more than twice as much as Barber has won ($239,000).

The two men were paired with Sorenstam by a computer which selects groups based on class of player. Wilson and Barber are both in the lowest category, and Sorenstam was placed in that class because she is not a PGA Tour member. Both say they are Annika Sorenstam fans and Barber thinks her skills are good enough that she can beat anybody. Sorenstam has said she'll consider this effort a win if she shoots par, which is 70 for 18 holes.