Sorenstam proves gap is narrowed, but short game lets her down

Well, she did it. She faced the media blitz, the winding fairways and a gallery-size crowd usually reserved for the links-based circus that is Tiger Woods. She wowed the crowd, opened some eyes and discovered what she has to work on. And even though she missed the cut by four shots, when Annika Sorenstam finished her round on Friday afternoon at the Bank of America Colonial at the Colonial Country Club in Ft. Worth, Texas, she came away a winner and brought a lot of sponsors along for the ride.

Late last week, Sorenstam became the first woman to compete in a PGA tournament since Babe Didrickson Zaharias played in the Los Angeles Open in 1945. The 32-year-old Sorenstam finished her opening round Thursday at 1-over par and she missed the tournament’s 1-over cut by following her Thursday showing with a 4-over 74.

It was Sorenstam’s putter that let her down during the first round. She left four makeable birdie putts short and twice hit long second shots into the bunkers fronting the green. Had all gone better Thursday, Sorenstam could have shot a 2-under 68 or better. Friday, on faster greens sun-baked for two days following Wednesday’s rainstorms, Sorenstam putted better, but her shots from the tee-box let her down.

Afterwards, Sorenstam said, “Personally, I came here to test myself. I wanted to see if I could do it. That’s all that matters to me.”

The week couldn’t have been more hectic. Her husband, David, was quarantined with what turned out to be the flu, but what doctors were initially treating as SARS. Over 600 media credentials were issued for the Colonial. Usually, the tournament issues less than 100. Sorenstam admitted to being overwhelmed by the media attention and the rest of the excitement of the week. I predict the toughness and graciousness she showed at the Colonial will translate into big sponsorship money.

The LPGA Tour, where Sorenstam makes her living as the tour’s best golfer, is seeing instant benefits from Sorenstam’s participation in the Colonial. Next week’s event, the Kellogg-Keebler Classic near Chicago, has had media requests double from last year, and advance ticket sales are up 50 percent. Increased media attention is the only way the LPGA will increase exposure. Sorenstam has given her tour a tremendous boost.

When the USA Network broadcast the first and second rounds on Thursday and Friday last week, they followed Sorenstam’s every move, which translated into a record number of viewers. CBS even posted a 4 percent increase in viewership on Saturday and Sunday, even though Sorenstam didn’t play the last two rounds.

Since the USA Network followed Sorenstam’s every move, her main sponsor, Callaway, with whom she is signed through 2004 at $1 million per year, received record logo exposure. Her other main sponsor, Mercedes-Benz, also received big airtime, as the automaker’s logo is on Sorenstam’s golf shirt.

“In this situation, she resonated across age groups and genders,” said Michelle Cevantez, vice president of marketing for Mercedes, in a story on “A lot of that goes back to Annika and her personality. She’s so endearing that you want her to do well. And the other piece of that is she trains so hard. She looks to excel at everything.” Sorenstam likes to brag that she can do 11 pull-ups with a 25-pound weight around her waist and squat 300 lbs.

Sorenstam is also under contract with Cutter and Buck, Oakley, Microsoft and Kraft. She also recently signed with Golf Magazine and became the first woman in 26 years to grace the magazine’s cover. And more sponsors are surely on the way. With her gritty performance and genuine attitude, Sorenstam proved she should command the type of money advertising darlings like Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie get.

And though she doesn’t want to try it again, Sorenstam proved to herself and skeptics and supporters alike that she belonged, that she could hang with tougher competition and that she still has room for improvement. And when asked during Friday’s press conference what she had learned about herself during the tournament, Sorenstam simply answered, “That I love what I do.”

If her showing at the Colonial, her record round of 59 in 2002 or her 13 wins in 25 tournaments last don’t prove it, that simple “I love what I do” does. She’s a winner, all right.