Sunday, June 12, 2005

Upper Crust

America's secondary education system is clearly failing us. Neither Michelle Wie, a sophomore at Honolulu's Punahou Academy, nor the newly-minted graduate of Pendleton High in Bradenton, Florida, Paula Creamer, could get closer than three shots to Annika Sorenstam at the McDonald's LPGA Championship. Then again, neither could anyone of drinking age. Sorenstam won her third straight Mickey D's, even though they switched venues from DuPont Country Club to Bulle Rock (pronounced "bully," as in what Sorenstam's doing to the rest of the LPGA).

Another Anni-kakewalk, her 6th in 8 tournaments this year and 62nd of her career, puts Sorenstam halfway toward her ultimate goal of winning women's golf's Grand Slam. And the fact that her closest competitors aren't old enough to know how to use a cassette tape irrefutably reveals just how wide the gap is between Annika and everyone else.

It's not unlike Tiger's run from 1999-2002 when he racked up 7 of his 9 majors while none of the rest of the best were playing at a consisently high level. For sure, Annika would be getting her fair share of trophies no matter how anyone else was playing. But this eye-popping stretch of 39 wins in the last 4 1/2 years and five victories in the last ten majors has either caused or coincided with a downturn in the careers of what had been her chief challengers: Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Meg Mallon, and Juli Inkster. Each has managed a major or two during Sorenstam's streak, but none has posed a consistent threat.

That's actually a very interesting question to ponder. Has Annika merely taken advantage of her peers' less-than-peak performances since 2001 or were those players simply unable to respond when Sorenstam took her game and her body to a higher level?

You could argue that Inkster, 44, and Mallon, 42, are a tick or two past their primes and, thus, unable to keep up with one of the most dedicated athletes, male or female, in all of sports. But the Webb and Pak cases are more curious.

Webb's still just 30. She was narrowly but decisively #1 from 1999 through the summer of '01, racking up 15 victories during that span, including five majors. But she's won only four times since, and none of those were majors.

Pak's even younger, just 27. She burst onto the LPGA stage in 1998 when she made the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open her first two career victories, as a 20-year-old, no less. But after consecutive five-win seasons, Pak's won just four LPGA events (no majors) since 2003, which is great...unless you're one of the best players in the world.

It's an impossible question to answer, but I'd suggest Annika's work ethic has at the very least contributed to the others underachieving. Consider that in 2000, Sorenstam had won five times but had been upstaged by Webb's seven Ws, two of which were majors. That's when Sorenstam decided to take matters into her own hands, feet, abs, traps, delts, quads, etc.

Her first event of 2001 was the Takefuji Classic in Hawaii, which I happened to be broadcasting for The Golf Channel. We'd heard about Annika's off-season conditioning program and how she'd been in one, continuous abdominal crunch all winter. When I interviewed her on the putting green at Kona Country Club the day before the tournament started, I jokingly referred to the then-30-year-old Sorenstam as a "crusty veteran." As with most mentally stable people, she didn't get my joke. She quizzically countered, "Crusty? Why do you call me crusty? I'm not crusty." Oops.

Since that interview, Annika's been relentless, with me and more importantly with the rest of the LPGA. While never letting me live that dubious question down, she's hardly let other players up. Sorenstam has completely reshaped her physique - from skinny to sleek to superwoman - and her game, adding power to her trademark precision and making a conscious decision to hang out with her friends on the PGA TOUR, most notably Tiger Woods, to see what she could learn from them, which she has admitted was a lot. Now, she's without a doubt the most complete player in all of golf, men's or women's. And, yes, I'm including Tiger.

Annika gave Webb, Pak, and the rest of the LPGA her best shot, and no one's had a counterpunch. It tends to be a bit demoralizing when you know the best player in the world is also the hardest worker.

The only hope for the rest of the LPGA may be for Annika to quit pushing herself or for me to quit asking her dumb questions. I wouldn't bet on either.

5 comments:

Joel Quile said...

Great post Boone. I've got to hand it to you...you know how to make me mad (..."one good day...")!
I read this incredible piece shaking my head and muttering, "website, website, website"
Take it to the next level and write an article like this everyday and post it on your site. Trust me. Annika won't be the only one bullying the competition!

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