Annika Sorenstam swings across a gender barrier

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She strides down fairways with the pugnacity of a Marine drill sergeant, but speaks like a bashful ingénue.

She can make a golf ball take off like a missile, descend with smart-bomb accuracy, and stick to greens like a velcro-covered marshmallow.

Her name is Annika Sorenstam and she is to women's golf what Tiger Woods is to the men's tour.

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This week (May 22-25), she will be the first woman in 58 years to play in a men's professional tour event, at the Colonial Invitational, in Fort Worth, Texas. The Swedish-born golf sensation will do more than test the storied skills of the LPGA's best golfer against the best male golfers in the world.

She is setting off the biggest clash of gender and ego since Cleopatra rolled herself into a rug to get Egypt back from Caesar in 51 BC. Or at least since Billie Jean King whupped Bobby Riggs in tennis's over-hyped "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973.

There is good reason for both the hype and genuine interest. Sorenstam is the biggest name in women's golf and has won 19 LPGA tournaments in the past two years. Embodying long drives, a precision short game, and impeccable putting, Sorenstam's prowess has some male golfers quaking in their spikes that she might embarrass them on the links. Although Sorenstam says she just wants to improve her game, the subtext of her challenge is, quite simply: Can the best woman golfer seriously compete with men?

"They can't say it, but a lot of guys on the men's tour would like to morph their drivers into flyswatters and swat Annika Sorenstam like an ugly fly," says Randy Crusoe, a self-proclaimed golf fanatic following Sorenstam at the Takefuji Classic here April 15. "Now I know why: She's good!"

Last week, the No. 7-ranked men's golfer, Vijay Singh, made headlines when he told the Associated Press that Sorenstam "doesn't belong out here." Saying he would not play in the same group as Sorenstam, he questioned her motives.

"What is she going to prove by playing? It's ridiculous," said Singh, a two-time major winner. "She's the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasize, 'woman.' We have our tour for men, and they have their tour. She's taking a spot from someone in the field." (The Colonial is an invitational with limited participation. Sorenstam received one of eight sponsor's exemptions.)

Observers say more than just men versus women bragging rights are at stake.

With national debates raging over whether Title IX funds to women's college sports are decimating men's programs and the lack of female access to the all-male Augusta National Country Club, the 200-men-versus -one-woman tourney is expected to get the most nonsports press coverage for a coed sports event of this sort since the Riggs vs. King tennis game.

"This match has several value-added components that will help it dominate the front pages," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "People who care nothing about golf will be watching it as a referendum for these other issues. Whether it makes sense to do so or not, it's going to be great fun."

The male-dominated world of Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer, and Woods is certainly gearing up for a combination of "Century Battle of the Sexes" meets "Fear Factor."

"This is creating a huge stir in golf," says Carl Seelman, head golf pro at Las Vegas Country Club, where Sorenstam competed in April's Takefuji Classic. "It's going to be interesting to see how the men react to her. Especially if she beats any of them."

Beating them is not the point, according to Sorenstam, nor is self-promotion or even drawing attention to women's golf, which LPGA officials say is a welcome byproduct. Sorenstam says she simply wants to "take her game to a different level" by playing with bigger, stronger golfers under higher media pressure.

"I had no idea this would cause such a commotion," she told the press at the Takefuji Classic. "I started playing golf when I was 12 and we played against boys, some younger, some older. That's how we got better - playing with the guys from the same tees."

She says she accepted the invitation by Colonial because the tight course - thinner fairways, more doglegs - favors her precision game and minimizes the advantage of longer drivers. Although she averages 265 yards off the tee, she would rank 172nd on the PGA tour.

Despite that, Tiger Woods, who has played alongside Sorenstam in exhibition tournaments, told reporters at this year's Buick Open, "There's no doubt about it, that she can handle [the Colonial], with her game."

The first question is whether Sorenstam will make the cut to continue playing after two days. For all her wins, she has not done well in major tournaments, winning only four over all. Analysts say she can get off her game when the stakes get higher.

"Everything will come down to her short game and chipping and how well she can scramble to save pars when she's left herself a long putt," says Jimmy Burch, golf writer for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth where the tournament is being held. "She is known for getting behind in putting under the pressure of big tournaments."

Whereas other famous women golfers present and past are known for specialized strengths in putting, driving with woods, or fairway irons, most analysts say Sorenstam's game, when she is clicking, has no weaknesses.

"She's got the complete game," says LPGA hall of famer Patty Shehan. "She just has the entirely complete game. A lot of players these days have parts of that, but they don't have everything Annika has."

Born in Stockholm in 1970, Annika wanted to be a protennis player but says she didn't have the right kind of strength and coordination. She took up golf instead, entering tournaments in her teen years. It was at a tournament in Japan that she was offered a scholarship to the University of Arizona.

She grew to only 5'6", but has made up for her height with rigorous cross-training, with visible results from broad muscular shoulders, to powerful biceps and forearms.

Because even the best golfers have their good days and bad, Mr. Burch and others say too much may be made of the final outcome.

"The great unwashed are in love with this as battle of the sexes angle, which is understandable," says Burch. "But I say it will be unfortunate to generalize too much from this whether or not she does well or poorly. If she misses the cut it doesn't make her a bad golfer, and if she finishes in the top 10 it won't mean she's better than all the men she beat."

However well she does, the exposure is expected to be good for the women's tour, which does not get nearly the coverage or attention that the men's does.

"This challenge to the men is giving us coverage and exposure we would never have dreamed of," says LPGA spokeswoman Dana Von Louda. "We think it will draw even more followers onto the women's tour after they see what Annika can do."

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