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A golfer on a hot streak at a tournament gives off a messianic vibe. The gallery builds from hole to hole as spectators are swept up in the momentum and excitement, and the roar of the crowd as each putt drops calls out across the course to draw still more fans. Rather than sermons, loaves, and fishes, the golfer deals out great shots, birdies, and eagles, but these are manna from heaven for the golf fan there to see them.

Traveling out to Aurora, a trip that took me past the dwindling string of office buildings along the East-West Tollway and through a faceless strip of malls and town houses to yet another mall, where spectators caught buses past still more malls and housing developments to Stonebridge Country Club, I didn't intend to get caught up in the mania surrounding Annika Sorenstam. After competing against the men in the Colonial the week before, she'd arrived in town for last week's Kellogg-Keebler Classic--the unfortunate title of the Chicago-area stop on the LPGA tour--with an aura about her. The pressure of being the first woman to play on the PGA tour since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 got to Sorenstam in the Colonial. She struck the ball well in the first round, hitting 14 of 18 greens in regulation, but her putter let her down, and after an early birdie she slipped to a one-over-par 71 with a couple of late three-putt greens. She came apart in the second round, finishing with a 74 to miss the cut by four strokes. Yet she conducted herself with such grace--from the jokey wobbling walk after striking her first drive to the flashed smile after going under par to the stifled tears at the end of the second round--that she made converts of sports fans around the world. Her LPGA tour colleagues supported her foray into the men's world, but they had to have mixed feelings about the "Go Annika" and "Annika-Mania Catch It!" buttons that were hot sellers at Stonebridge. And it was uncertain how she'd perform here in the afterglow of all that adulation. Would she defend last year's championship, which she won by 11 strokes, or suffer a letdown? Though Sorenstam's domination of the LPGA tour last year, when she won 11 tournaments, was widely acclaimed as a better season overall than Tiger Woods has ever had, the LPGA is full of great players, many with better swings than anyone on the men's tour, and they didn't deserve to be overshadowed.

I picked up Sorenstam on the first fairway just after her 8:40 AM tee-off Friday. She hit her second shot on the par-five hole into the rough near the throat of the fairway in front of the green, chipped up, and made the putt for birdie. Caught at a fairway crosswalk by a threesome coming through that included Loraine Lambert already at three under par after four holes, I briefly considered following the group in hopes of catching Lambert on a hot streak. Sorenstam, however, was the undeniable story--how she would react to the heightened attention and expectations--so I hustled through when the ropes opened and caught up with her. It was the right decision; I'd chosen the mounting exhilaration of a golfer on a roll. Sorenstam, followed by about 100 fans at this point, not only survived the hype, she exulted in it.

After a perfect drive, Sorenstam dropped a wedge on the flag and made the putt to birdie the second hole. Matched with Kelly Robbins, a tall, strapping woman with a frown like Tom Berenger's, and Rachel Teske, a smaller, slighter player, Sorenstam was the only one of the trio to go for the flag on the par-three third, set left of center behind water and a bunker on a kidney-shaped green. She drove long to the fringe, and left the putt coming back short for her first par. Her drive on the par-four fourth couldn't have been placed any better if she'd walked it out and dropped: the ball sat a few yards from a creek crossing the fairway and on the right, so that the green opened up for her approach. She hit onto the back tier, where the flag was, and swirled in the putt with a visible "Oooh!" followed by that flashing smile that has suddenly become so familiar. (When she displayed it at her media conference the previous day, cameras flashed like a fireworks finale.) Sorenstam, like Lambert, was three under through the first four holes. But Lambert would fade to a one-under 71 while Sorenstam flirted with matching her record-low round of 59. (She's the only LPGA golfer ever to break 60.)

Rain started on the fifth hole, stopped, then started again, yet as Sorenstam ended her foray out to one of the more distant reaches of the course and came closer to the clubhouse, more fans joined a gallery that now numbered in the hundreds. People living in the town houses alongside the course came out to watch her pass--a man and boy across a lake on one hole, a woman drying a dish on a back porch on another, two women at the end of a long porch off an upstairs bedroom on a third. The gallery was a mixture of men and women, many with kids in tow, some with their Annika buttons attached to backpacks that were filled with provisions for the day. There were even a couple of women with daughters in strollers, one holding an umbrella over the head of a dour little girl in a DKNY T-shirt who seemed confused about why all these people should be walking in the rain.

Sorenstam made a 15-footer on the fifth hole for her fourth birdie and flashed that smile with a pump of the fist thrown in for good measure. She was in a zone where breaking 60 was thinkable. Yet her birdie putt on the sixth just curled off at the end. She made up for it on the long par-four seventh with a crushing drive--315 yards according to the fairway markings for ESPN's TV coverage. The rain was coming down pretty good when she hit her next shot, and it was clear she couldn't spin the ball in and would have to just flop it up there, not really close. No, not very close, we could see as we walked up and gained perspective on the flag--only about 10 or 12 feet away. Following a line traced by Teske's longer putt in the same direction that curved wide--Sorenstam curled hers in dead center for her fifth birdie. Her long birdie putt on the par-three eighth started hopping as soon as she hit it and never had a chance. The sun came out and she took off her jacket. She hit her second shot on the par-five ninth into a green-side sand trap, made a nice long sand shot, and rolled in the putt to go out in 30, six under par, on pace for a 60.

The differences between Sorenstam and her playing partners were instructive. Robbins was the kind of tall, athletic player who has always been an LPGA prototype, a golfer with a mechanical swing but a long, fluid arc to give it power. Teske was an example of the smaller player of the new breed who performs amazing feats thanks largely to technique. Standing at the practice tee later in the day, I kept seeing slim, slight players like Soo-Yun Kang crank the ball out there.

These small women generate tremendous force with a perfectly timed swing in which they turn hard with their hips and almost drop their front shoulder into the shot, as if throwing a block. As Ben Hogan described in his Modern Fundamentals of Golf five decades ago, the chain reaction goes from hips to shoulders to arms to hands until the clubhead is just tearing through the air. The thing I noticed about Teske, Kang, and many other players with similar swings is how remarkably calm their bodies are in the middle of the swing, as they hit into a solid left side--the better for accuracy and repetition--and let the club carry them into the follow-through.

Sorenstam was different. She's renowned for her intense physical regimen--like Woods on the men's side, she's taken golf into the weight room--and she must have tremendous abdominal muscles. All her immense power (and again like Woods, she can outhit almost everyone on her tour) appeared to be generated by the torque of her midsection. She even seemed to peek on most of her shots--her head comes up unusually fast in the follow-through--but her midsection was so toned and controlled she kept the club head in its proper place when it struck the ball. Every swing was smooth, mechanical, and in tempo, in the manner of the old PGA player Gene "the Machine" Littler.

When Sorenstam's group began the back nine, I decided to go to the 18th green, check the leader board, and find out who else there was to see before meeting up with them on their way in. Dina Ammaccapane was six under par, but through 14 holes to Sorenstam's 9. Her sister, Danielle, who'd started on the 10th tee, got to 18 five under after acing the par-three 17th. By the time I caught up with Dina out on the course, she was dropping back. Both sisters finished the day at 68.

The best place on the course, I discovered, was a point where the 14th green, 15th tee, 16th green, 17th green, and 18th tee were all within 200 feet. I decided to hang around there and see everyone I could while waiting for the Sorenstam group to get to 14. When Sorenstam birdied the first two holes of the back nine and the leader board posted a score of eight under through 11, I thought I might be missing the round of the century, but she three-putted the par-three 12th to drop to seven under, and 59 became a pipe dream. Lambert and Mitzi Edge came to the 16th green with Lambert at even par, having squandered her early spurt, and Edge at three under after being five under at one point. Lambert saved par from off the green, but Edge putted timidly and didn't.

Noticing hundreds of people moving down the 14th fairway, I got back to the green. Sorenstam, still at seven under according to the board being carried with the group, had hit a long drive down the right side near the water, then mashed a fairway wood between the traps and onto the green. Sizing up the putt from the level of the green while standing in a back bunker, she stepped up, stroked the ball, and chased it down the hole for an eagle to go nine under with four holes to play.

The 15th tee is surrounded by trees, and it amplified the crack of her drive as she went for the record. Robbins and Teske were playing well too, at two under and one under, and Teske drilled her own drive. I let them go and took a place at the 16th green, where a patch of poison ivy and poison oak had forced the tourney organizers to leave the ropes remarkably close to the green to allow passage. I was about 20 feet from the cup when they hit in--all having parred the 15th. Teske arched a lovely shot just over the front bunker and about ten feet past the hole. Robbins hit hers into the heavy rough behind the green, and Sorenstam left hers in the front sand trap. Evidently the ball was buried under the lip, because she could only get it up to the top of the bunker with her explosion shot. When her chip rolled past the cup, she aimed those piercing blue eyes at a photographer who'd used a flash, but she made the putt coming back for bogey to stay at eight under. Teske missed her putt when it bounced on her but made par.

All had pars at 17 with decent but not great tee shots. At 18, a closing par five with a giant inflated Tony the Tiger and a Keebler elf turning their backs on the players as they faced the green and the grandstand, Teske hit a perfect drive, center of the fairway. Then Sorenstam hit one farther, just over a bunker intended to bounce shots into the water hazard. Robbins hit hers in the same area, not quite as far--a display of what a woman Teske's size is up against, even with a lovely swing. After Teske and Robbins hit up, Sorenstam finished in style. With a six iron, she hit a second shot that bounced twice in a slim patch of rough between the green and a creek, hopped, and cozied up to the flag like a lap dog. With more than 1,000 fans circling the green, Sorenstam tapped in for an eagle and a ten-under 62.

Amazingly, it wasn't alone as the low round of the day. Rosie Jones, a tall, tousle-haired player in the classic Juli Inkster mode, also shot a 62. For a while on Saturday, when I watched on TV from home, the better to see all the leaders' shots--and to avoid the cold and wind of a brutal last day of May--Jones even went ahead at 12 under, as Sorenstam had three-putt bogeys at 12 and 13. Yet Sorenstam fired another brilliant fairway wood at 14--you could see her psyching herself as she walked up the fairway--and she birdied every hole coming in to claim a two-shot second-round lead over Scotland's Mhairi McKay, who seemed to make every putt she had, while Jones slipped back to 11 under.

Sorenstam birdied the first two holes of Sunday's final round. McKay, paired with her, couldn't withstand the pressure and triple-bogeyed the fourth. By the time they came on ESPN2, Sorenstam was 18 under through the front nine and had a seven-stroke lead. She bogeyed the 10th, missing a short putt, but birdied the 11th and once again the short par-five 14th to go 19 under. The only question at this point was whether she would meet or top her own LPGA record of 21 under for a 54-hole event. When she three-putted the 17th for a bogey, that ended that, while McKay was putting together a string of birdies to seize second place at 14 under. The last hole looked like a cakewalk, but Sorenstam drove into deep rough on the left and had to take an unplayable lie, dropping into a sand trap. Her third stroke went right and her approach left into a bunker, while McKay was laying up and throwing a dart that came to rest within ten feet of the hole. If Sorenstam carded a triple-bogey (as McKay had earlier) and McKay made her birdie putt, they'd suddenly be tied. But Sorenstam knocked her shot out and made the putt to save bogey and finish chin up.

Given the pressure she was under at the Colonial, Sorenstam's performance there wasn't a failure even though she missed the cut. But I don't believe the pressure was much less last weekend, and she crushed the field. A great player under great pressure performed great feats, albeit with some staggering at the end, when like a god she almost seemed to lose interest. It was the best performance I'd seen by an athlete all year. What does it say that only the high school basketball heroics of Shuntae Roberison of Hope College Prep even come close?


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