Golfer Annika Sorenstam Swings Her Way to Stardom

This has been the year of the Tiger in pro golf. No matter where one turned, Tiger Woods was the focus - from overwhelming the Masters field in April to being humbled playing for the defeated American squad against Europe in September's Ryder Cup matches.

As much as Woods dominated golf's headlines, though, he will not finish the year as the game's most decorated shotmaker. That honor belongs to Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, who goes after her seventh victory in next week's ITT LPGA Tour Championship in Las Vegas (Nov. 20-23, with coverage on ESPN and ABC).

She owns more wins (6 to 4) than Woods and should, like him, wind up as the leading money winner of her professional circuit. She also is spectacularly consistent, with 15 Top 10 finishes.

About the only significant achievement that could elude her is the Vare Trophy, awarded annually to the LPGA player with the lowest season-long scoring average, and even there she is very close.

Entering the Tour Championship, Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, the tournament's defending champion, are on target to break the all-time best scoring average of 70.32 shots per 18-hole round set by Laura Davies last year. Webb leads 70.01 to 70.08, but Sorenstam owns a sizeable margin in the Player of the Year race, based on accumulated points.

Davies was last year's Player of the Year and Webb the LPGA's leading money winner as a rookie. Sorenstam could reclaim these distinctions, which she held in 1995, when a victory in the US Open catapulted her into the game's upper echelon.

That win brought a wave of media attention. She originally was uncomfortable with her stardom, but has since adjusted to it.

A computer buff whose father worked for IBM, Sorenstam writes a monthly column for a golf Web site and likes to analyze her personal statistics using her laptop. "I look at scoring average, hitting more greens, making more putts," she says. "Someday I'd like to hit 18 fairways, hit 18 greens, and make 18 putts."

A younger sister, Charlotta, with whom she is not especially close, is among the top rookies on this year's tour. But her chief confidant and the person who brings "more balance" to her life is husband David Esch.

They met in Arizona where she played for the University of Arizona and was the 1991 national champion. He now works as a consultant with Callaway Golf, her equipment sponsor. They married in January and have a home in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Four Champs in Grand Slam

The most intriguing of golf's end-of-season, change-of-pace events is probably the first up: the PGA Grand Slam, a tournament with only four players, a $1 million purse, and prime-time television coverage on Monday and Tuesday (TNT, 7:05-11:05 p.m., EST).

The Slam, set to tee off in Kauai, Hawaii, Nov. 17 and 18, brings together the winners of the year's four major tournaments, which in this case are Tiger Woods (Masters), Ernie Els (US Open), Justin Leonard (British Open), and Davis Love III (PGA Championship).

After a fast start to his first full season on the PGA Tour, in which he won four tournaments, Woods hung on to claim the 1997 money-winning title and break the $2 million barrier (collecting $2,066,833, to be exact). Hale Irwin, incidentally, won even more money while dominating the Senior Tour.

The Grand Slam is not part of the weekly tour, which officially ended Nov. 2 in Houston, with David Duval winning his third straight tournament at the Tour Championship to finish second to Woods in earnings. Duval's run was unprecedented for a player who had been winless. Before the streak, he owned seven second-place finishes.

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