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GOLF Annika accepts PGA invitation



Published: Sun, February 16, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Sorenstam will play in the Bank of America Colonial in May in Fort Worth, Texas.

By JOE LOGAN

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

If you don't already know much about her, get ready to hear all about Annika Sorenstam.

Sorenstam, the Tiger Woods of women's golf, a Swede with a swing so sweet she won 13 tournaments around the world last year, accepted an invitation Wednesday from a PGA Tour tournament, the Bank of America Colonial, in May in Fort Worth, Texas.

She will be the first woman in 58 years to play against men on their professional tour.

"There were many invitations, but the golf course and the schedule of the Colonial were ideal," said Sorenstam, who essentially solicited invitations last month when she said, "It would be a challenge. I have nothing to lose."

At least two other tournaments had also extended offers, hoping to cash in on the talk, headlines, and increase in ticket sales that Sorenstam's appearance will surely generate.

Publicity boost

Without spending a dime, the Colonial tournament will get more publicity and news coverage than perhaps any tournament all year, except for the four majors, even though Woods, the dominant draw on the PGA Tour, will not play in the event this year.

Woods' prowess and popularity have divided the tour into two tiers: tournaments that have Tiger and tournaments that don't.

Since Woods plays in only 18 events a year, the Tiger-less tournaments are left to find other ways to get the public's attention.

Sorenstam picked the Colonial, best known as home to the legendary Ben Hogan, because she believes the relatively short, tight golf course will favor her controlled style of play.

"For all the well-wishers who want to know why I would accept such a challenge, the answer is simple," added Sorenstam, 32, who now lives in Nevada. "I am curious to see if I can compete in a PGA Tour event."

Simple answer, daunting task.

Impressive credentials

As impressive as Sorenstam's credentials are -- she owns almost every significant record in women's golf and gets better every year -- many sports fans blanch at the idea of her or any other woman playing against the men.

Sorenstam won 13 tournaments worldwide last year. As good as she is, even some PGA Tour players quietly suggested that Sorenstam is not strong enough to compete with men and that she stands to embarrass herself and, in doing so, women athletes in general.

Even Woods, a friend of Sorenstam's, sounded a note of caution Wednesday.

"I think it's great she's playing," said Woods, in San Diego for a tournament. "But it will only be great for women's golf if she plays well. If she puts up two high scores, it will be more detrimental than good."

Ty Votaw, commissioner of the LPGA Tour, praised the Colonial and Sorenstam.

"Regardless of what may be written in the weeks and months to come, this is Annika vs. Annika," said Votaw, alluding to Sorenstam's reputation for a work ethic and determination that match Woods'. "It's about Annika challenging herself and breaking down barriers -- never stopping in her quest to improve and test her abilities."

Gender issues

The announcement comes at a time when golf is in the news over another issue of gender equality.

For months, the game has been at the center of a cross fire focusing on women's rights and the rights of private clubs, a battle between the National Council of Women's Organizations and Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home to the Masters.

The National Council of Women's Organizations has been pressuring Augusta National to admit its first woman member. Augusta National has steadfastly refused, saying the club, not outsiders, will decide when the time is right.

Wednesday, while traveling abroad, Martha Burk, chair of the National Council, was quick to hail the news about Sorenstam and wish her well.

"We look forward to women's continued participation in all aspects of golf," Burk said.

Thunder stolen

By picking to play in the Colonial, Sorenstam will also steal the thunder of Suzy Whaley, a club professional from Connecticut who made headlines last fall when she qualified to play in the Greater Hartford Open in July.

At the time, the PGA Tour announced that Whaley would be the first women to compete in a PGA Tour event.

Later, the PGA Tour realized that Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a dominant athlete from another era, had qualified for and played in the 1945 Los Angeles Open. Zaharias made the 36-hole cut, but shot a 79 in the third round and was eliminated.

For officials at the Colonial, offering Sorenstam one of the 12 invitations it has at its discretion was a no-brainer.

"Our tournament has historically recognized and supported exceptional players who otherwise would not qualify for our invitational event," Dee Finley, the tournament chairman, said Wednesday. "Annika's accomplishments show that she is certainly deserving."




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