At the peak of her powers

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

Twenty-two months ago, on a sultry day in Fort Worth, Annika Sorenstam bowed out of the Colonial Invitational, a venerable PGA Tour event.

Competing under the intense scrutiny of the world and the occasional disapproving glance of the men she competed against, Sorenstam missed the cut, 96th in a field of 113. It had been 58 years since a woman competed in a PGA Tour event

"I'm glad I did it," she said that day, "but I was in over my head. I wasn't as tough as I thought I was. I'm going back to my tour where I belong."

Looking back, you have to wonder if Sorenstam wasn't too quick to judge. Since that day, she has won 15 LPGA tournaments, including her current streak of five in a row.

She is dominating her tour the way Gretzky used to dominate hockey, the way Jordan used to dominate basketball, the way Tiger used to dominate golf.

After she lapped the field at the first women's major of the year, the Nabisco last weekend, winning by eight shots, there is talk, not only that she will win the so-called Soren-slam (all four majors) but every tournament she enters this year.

Does that not sound like a woman who is ready to play in a higher league?

Tuesday afternoon, she competed along with 17 male pros, including some of the game's biggest names, in the Tavistock Cup. It's an all-Orlando match-play deal between two of the toniest clubs in golf: Isleworth, headed by Tiger Woods, versus Lake Nona, led by Ernie Els. Even though there is hardly the tension of a U.S. Open, or even a Colonial, nobody wanted to let his (or her) team down.

Sorenstam more than held her own. No breaks for her. She played the Isleworth tips, listed at 7,544 yards, same as the men and shot 73. That was a score good enough to beat six of the men in the 18-person field. She did lose her matches, to Charles Howell and Lee Janzen, but both men had to rally late to accomplish their wins.

Sorenstam, at 34, is at the peak of her powers, though that might be selling her short. In her first six years on Tour she won 23 tournaments, but only two majors and both those had been accomplished before 1997. Going into the 2001 season, one of her opponents, described her, anonymously, as "the Queen of the Shop-Rite Classic" leaving the impression that Sorenstam choked when the pressure was on in the majors.

Since then, she has won 35 tournaments, including six majors and has set her sights on some outrageous goals. For example, she is the only woman to shoot 59 in a tournament, yet has stated she believes she could shoot a 54 -- 18 consecutive birdies. She is also on record that it is her goal to win the women's slam this year. And she has made no secret that it is her goal to surpass Kathy Whitworth's 88 career wins, most by any woman.

There are plenty of smart folks in the golf world who believe Sorenstam is the best player in the world right now, relatively speaking. She has separated herself from her peers the way Woods did in 2000 and 2001.

There is no doubt that Colonial was a watershed moment for Sorenstam. Playing a golf course that was 700 yards longer than the longest on the LPGA Tour, she putted for birdie 18 times in the first round. Only the slick greens, much harder and faster than the ones she was accustomed to putting, kept her from shooting under par in that first round. In the second round, she started pressing to try to make the cut and hit a few wayward shots, but still finished with six consecutive pars and her self-respect intact.

But that was it, leaving us all to wonder just what would happen if she played five or six weeks in a row. Her ballstriking was and is impeccable. She is plenty long enough, especially since she hits it so straight. She would compare favourably to a Fred Funk, but hey, what's he won lately?

She is the best woman putter in the world so you can bet she would figure out those hard, fast greens soon enough. She could live on sponsors' exemptions for as long as she wants because everyone would want her at their tournament but here's the coolest scenario: Sorenstam slaps down her $4,500 US down payment for PGA qualifying school and earns her card the old-fashioned way.

If ever there was a woman prepared to break the so-called "grass ceiling," Sorenstam is the one. Michelle Wie will get her chance soon enough, but Sorenstam's time is now, if she wants it.


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