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Final round spectacle costly



Published: Wed, June 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



LPGA again has come under scrutiny over its ability to play tough courses.

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. (AP) -- Women's golf never had it this good.

The story lines were so compelling going into the final round of the U.S. Women's Open that it became must-see TV.

There was a distinctive buzz among the 30,000 lucky souls scrambling for a view on a sunny day at Cherry Hills.

Annika Sorenstam was going for the third leg of the Grand Slam, and while she was five shots out of the lead, she was on the same course where Arnold Palmer hitched up his pants, drove the first green and charged to the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history 45 years ago.

Just as captivating where the two teenagers still in high school, tied for the lead and trying to become the youngest major champions in golf history -- 15-year-old Michelle Wie, already one of the most famous female athletes on the planet; and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel, a ponytailed blonde from south Florida ready to conquer the world.

Then the cameras came on, producing the highest rating for the U.S. Women's Open in eight years.

And women's golf has rarely looked this bad.

Not even a finish that ranks among the most dramatic in U.S. Open history -- a 30-yard bunker shot holed by Birdie Kim, one of the coolest names in golf -- could spare the LPGA Tour from perceptions it has battled for years.

Its new marketing campaign is "These Girls Rock."

The image from Cherry Hills is that they can't play worth a lick.

Not complimentary

"Johnny Miller is not being very complimentary to us, but that's the role he plays," Lorie Kane said of NBC Sport's lightning rod of an analyst, who calls it as he sees it, and didn't like a lot of what he saw.

Kane was off the hook, as her 69 was the only score under par in the final round.

"I would hope the fans understand that we're playing a golf course that isn't giving up much," she said.

Indeed, the scoring average the last day was 76.1, some of that undoubtedly brought on by the pressure of the most prestigious event in women's golf.

The U.S. Women's Open is to the other LPGA majors what the Masters is to the Byron Nelson Championship.

Criticism of women's golf is nothing new.

Seven years ago at Blackwolf Run, the best anyone could do at the U.S. Women's Open was 6 over par by a pair of 20-year-olds, LPGA Tour rookie Se Ri Pak and amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. Pak prevailed in a 20-hole playoff.

A year later, Paul Lawrie won a three-man playoff at Carnoustie with the same score.

That led LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw to point out an uneven playing field. When the men shoot 6 over par to win a major, that can only mean the course was close to impossible. When the women shoot 6 over par, they can't play.

It works the other way, too.

David Duval shot 59 in the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Classic, considered one of the greatest rounds ever played. Two years later, Sorenstam shot 59 at Moon Valley, and the assumption was the set up of the course was too easy.

Still, the evidence was stacked against the women Sunday at Cherry Hills.

Sorenstam struggled

There was Sorenstam, the most dominant player in golf, trying to emulate Palmer with a driver off the first tee. Instead of hitting the green, she hit a tree and went into a creek to make bogey.

About the time NBC came on the air, Pressel missed a 3-foot putt for the first of three straight bogeys, and the only reason she didn't tumble down the leaderboard was that everyone around her was sinking faster.

Wie might have been the most shocking sight of all. She missed putts inside 3 feet on three out of four holes. The exception came at No. 9, where she dribbled a ball 20 feet in the rough and made double bogey on her way to an 82.

A ray of hope came from Lorena Ochoa, who was 3 under for her round and on the verge of the largest comeback in Women's Open history.

Then she got to the 18th tee. Overcome by the pressure, her 3-wood dug out a chunk of turf before it reached the ball, and it went into the water.

"I hate to call it choking, but that's what it is," Miller said, and it would be hard to argue with him.

The lasting image of Cherry Hills shouldn't be putts left short or fairways missed wide, but Birdie's bunker shot for a birdie, and a brigade of teenagers on the verge of giving women's golf the attention in deserves.

They'll get another chance, and soon.




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