Sorenstam has earned her shot in Colonial

It doesn’t seem like it should be such a big issue. Golfer Annika Sorenstam has won more than $12 million in her nine-year LPGA career. She once shot 13 birdies and no bogies to card a 59 on a par-72 course. She has won four major tournaments. But Sorenstam’s biggest accomplishment this season could be playing in a men’s tournament this month while fielding question after question about whether or not that’s a good thing.

The 32-year-old Sorenstam received a sponsor’s exemption for the Bank of America Colonial in Ft. Worth, Texas, and she will play in the tourney May 22-25. Sorenstam will become the first woman to play in a men’s tournament in 58 years. Babe Didrickson Zaharias played in the Los Angeles Open in 1945.

Sorenstam wrapped up her pre-Colonial schedule this weekend when she won the Nichirei Cup World Ladies tournament in Japan by nine strokes. She will spend the next week-and-a-half getting ready for the Colonial.

I love that she will get a chance to play against men. What I don’t love is the media’s response to her joining the field. It seems the idea of a woman playing against men is hard for many to handle.

What is widely known is that women’s golf and the LPGA are grossly underreported in the media. What isn’t as widely known is that nobody, Tiger Woods included, has won more tournaments in the last two years than Sorenstam. But during that time she has received exactly 1 percent of Woods’ media coverage. Last year she won 13 times, more than any golfer in 40 years. When her agent Mark Steinberg, who also represents Woods, approached tournament director Lee Finley about an exemption, he decided to give it a go. Bank of America was also excited about the idea. Sorenstam’s presence at the tradition-steeped Colonial is almost guaranteed to boost television viewership. Sorenstam told “CBS Sportsline” that she has nothing to lose. Just a lot to gain.

“I would love to play,” she said. “It’s a great challenge.”

The uproar alone has caused her to be flooded with interview requests, and stories about her are finally focusing less on her blonde hair and more on her golfing technique, less on her fashion sense and more on her workout regimen (Sorenstam can do 11 pull-ups with a 25-pound weight around her waist and can squat 300 pounds).

Colonial Country Club fits Sorenstam’s game to a tee. Because the course is narrow and curvy, players must be able to shape the ball and pinpoint drives to certain spots on the fairway. As legend Ben Hogan said, “A straight ball will get you in more trouble at Colonial than any course I know.” Sorenstam excels at control. Hitting from the tournament tees, Sorenstam will give up about 35 yards in driving distance to the top male drivers. Sorenstam’s average of 275.4 yards off the tee leads women’s golf.

Sorenstam has a chance to increase awareness and interest in her sport, while competing for much bigger money. Prizes on the PGA Tour are four to five times higher than those on the LPGA Tour. The kicker is that, with a total of seven exemptions allowed to her this year, Sorenstam could, if things go her way and she so chooses, earn enough prize money and rank high enough at the end of the year to earn her tour card.

Of course, things could go badly, too. The intense media pressure, something LPGA golfers historically have not had to handle, could be a bit stifling when added to the Texas heat. And the rise to prominence of what legend Jack Nicklaus calls “gorillas” (long-driving freaks) will make it hard for her to keep up. Sorenstam will probably always be hitting first on the fairways, and she’ll have to trust her instincts rather than watch competitors for clues on how to play shots. But if she makes the 36-hole cut, something Zaharias did in 1945, and gets paid man-sized money, Sorenstam might find it tough to go back to wasting her normal competition on the LPGA Tour. Sorenstam has pledged to donate half of her earnings from the Colonial to the charities of the Corning Classic, the LPGA event held the same weekend. Prizes after the cut at the Colonial range from $10,000 for last place to $900,000 for the winner.

Regardless of what happens on the leaderboard, here’s hoping Sorenstam can drown out all the questions about the validity of her presence at the Colonial with the solid sound of balls scorched and flagsticks being buzzed. If she succeeds, the face of golf will change for the better.