Sideshows aside, the focus shifts to Sorenstam

SOUTHERN PINES, North Carolina, AP

Morgan Pressel ordinarily would be finishing up science and getting ready for social studies at Omni Middle School in Florida. Instead, the 13-year-old with braces will be teeing off in the U.S. Women’s Open. Brenda Corrie Kuehn is old enough to be her mother. The 36-year-old qualifier certainly looks the part. She is eight months pregnant, had three ultrasounds to make sure she can play and is giving “course management” a new meaning. “I’ve tried to get a map in detail of where the bathrooms are,” she said. Clearly, there is no shortage of sideshows this week. But when the 56th U.S. Women’s Open begins Thursday at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, the spotlight shifts to where it has been all year — Annika Sorenstam. The 30-year-old Swede has everything in her favor as she pursues the second leg of the Grand Slam. She is playing on a different level than everyone else on the LPGA Tour, winning five out of her 10 events, including a major, and shooting the first 59 in women’s golf. She also won the 1996 U.S. Open champion at Pine Needles, blitzing the field in by hitting 51 out of 56 fairways and winning by six strokes. “This is a tournament that I’ve been looking forward to playing,” she said. “Coming here to Pine Needles, it’s just wonderful. But I want to leave it at that.” The pressure is building on Sorenstam the way it did in 1997, when she sought to become the first woman to win three straight U.S. Open titles. Instead, she missed the cut and didn’t win another major until the Nabisco earlier this year. Now, a woman whose dominance is often compared with that of Tiger Woods has a chance to build on her incredible season and set her sights on a Grand Slam, with the LPGA Championship just three weeks away and the British Open in August. “This is the first time I’ve ever thought about having a chance of doing a Grand Slam because I’ve never won the Nabisco before,” Sorenstam said. “It’s fun to think about it. But I don’t want to think any further than this week.” Her quest begins at 1200 GMT Thursday when she tees off with Meg Mallon. Pine Needles offers a test unlike any other the players will face all year — tight, bending fairways to Donald Ross-domed greens that run off into hollows. With Sorenstam playing the best golf of her career, defending champion Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster, who won the tournament two years ago, Dottie Pepper and everyone else will have to be at the top of their games. “She’s worked hard to get where she’s at,” Inkster said.”It’s not like someone said, ‘OK, Annika, it’s your year.’ She worked hard, and I respect her golf game. It’s awesome.” That’s what everyone said about Webb last year. She, too, won the first major of the season at Nabisco and drew comparisons to Woods by winning four of her first five tournaments, and later adding the U.S. Open. “When Karrie was playing great, I sometimes kicked myself because I would just watch her hit the ball. It was so impressive,” Inkster said. “Annika is that way. When she gets going, she’s on fire. She knows exactly where she wants the ball to go, and she puts it there.” Webb hasn’t disappeared, even though her only victory this year was in Japan. Coming off a recent five week break to get recharged, she feels her game is coming around in time to make a strong defense of her title, and give Sorenstam a challenge the rest of the season. “The biggest tournaments are yet to come,” Webb said. “I know if I play my very best golf, I’ll have a shot at it Sunday.” The question is whether Pressel, the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history, or Kuehn, who isn’t the only pregnant player but certainly the farthest along, will be around to steal some of the thunder. Pressel’s thrill so far has been meeting Webb and Lorie Kane, and playing a practice round with Rachel Teske of Australia and Janice Moodie of Scotland. The last time she was among the LPGA stars was at a tournament in Miami, where she stood in line to get autographs. This week, she has been signing them for her new fans. “They’re little ones,” she said. “Maybe 8, 10.”