Finally, Annika's way


Annika Sorenstam, of Sweden, tees off on the fifth hole during the first round of the U.S. Women's Open in Newport, R.I.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
NEWPORT, R.I. - The U.S. Women's Open has given Annika Sorenstam fits the last 10 years.
On Friday, it gave her reason to believe her fortunes were changing.
The soupy fog that delayed the first round one day gave her time to finish fine-tuning her game, and she came out firing. The one time she found casual water on a course filled with puddles, it allowed her to clean mud off her ball for a long, uphill approach to the ninth hole, the toughest at Newport Country Club. She walked off with the only birdie.
And when the Swede completed her 2-under 69, she was in a four-way tie for the lead with Se Ri Pak, Pat Hurst, and 19-year-old amateur Jane Park.
"It's a great start, and hopefully I can continue this," Sorenstam said. "I feel like I've come a long ways the last few days, and today I really showed that. So it was good."
How good? Sorenstam was the only player to break par among late starters who faced blustery conditions on a sunny afternoon along the shores of the Atlantic. It was the first time she broke 70 in the first round of the Women's Open since she won it in 1995. And with a 36-hole Sunday looming, Sorenstam figures her fitness will give her an advantage.
But she also knows not to look too far ahead.
"There's a long way to go," she said. It took a long time to get started because of the fog delay, and the bad news was that it took more than a half-inch of rain to chase it away. That left Newport a swampy mess, with some bunkers looking more like ponds, small swamps in the rough and puddles everywhere on the fairways.
"It's wet, but you're playing the U.S. Open. I can't complain," said Park, who just finished her freshman year at UCLA.
Michelle Wie had few complaints with her round that was a good fit for the toughest test in women's golf. The 16-year-old from Hawaii made 15 pars, only one mistake and closed out her round with a 15-foot birdie putt to lead the group at 1-under 70.
Her only problem was straying into the soggy rough a few times too many, and she winced and held her left wrist trying to hit through the mushy grass. It's a minor injury that stems from the muscle in her forearm, but it didn't cause too many problems.
"I had a very solid round today, lot of pars," Wie said. "That's what the U.S. Open is. You have to have pars when you're in trouble, get away with a bogey or a par. And I felt like I did that today."
The soggy conditions sure didn't look like a U.S. Open, but the scoring left no doubt. The average score was 75.95, and 21 players failed to break 80.
Sorenstam made only one bogey when her 7-wood went through the green on the par-4 sixth, but she countered with birdies on the two toughest holes at Newport. Nothing was sweeter than No. 9.
Even after cleaning her ball and finding a dry patch of grass, she had 185 yards to an elevated green with three tiers and a pin tucked over a ridge. Her approach stopped just off the green, and she had to putt over a spine toward the cup. It was perfect.
Sorenstam raised her putter and thrust her fist when the 20-foot birdie putt disappeared, and there was indeed reason to celebrate.
"I was lucky that I was in casual water because I had a chance to clean my ball," Sorenstam said. "I had so much mud on it."
Despite the soft greens from more than 13 inches of rain over the last six weeks, only nine players broke par in the opening round, two of them amateurs. Amanda Blumenherst, who helped lead Duke to the NCAA title as a freshman, was in the group at 70.
Lorena Ochoa of Mexico and Paula Creamer were among those who escaped at even-par 71.
Karrie Webb, who has gone 1-2 in the first two majors, was 4 over through 12 holes and slipping out of contention until she rebounded with a pair of birdies and a delicate chip up two tiers to 4 feet to save par on the ninth for a 73.
Webb fell far behind at the Women's Open last year and started to press, instead falling farther behind.
"I had to remind myself of things like that and keep plugging away," she said. "I just wanted to keep myself in it."
Pak was one of the few who felt comfortable walking the squishy fairways, battling gusts and greens that were slower than usual and bumpy because of the wet conditions. Perhaps that's because the 28-year-old star from South Korea is comfortable anywhere, having returned to the elite with her LPGA Championship victory three weeks ago.
She surged toward the top with a 35-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole, another birdie on the seventh and a two-putt par from some 60 feet and over the two ridges on the ninth.
"I'll always be here if anyone forgets about me," Pak said with a laugh. "I just so much enjoyed it out there, all day along, so much comfortable and confidence in myself. It helped me out with a good round."
The surprise was Park, an engaging personality who won the U.S. Women's Amateur in 2004 and is preparing to play in her second Curtis Cup for the United States. Wearing a bucket hat - "I always buy a hat at the U.S. Open," she said - she was giggling and smiling her way around Newport, even making a funny face at her caddie when a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole stopped an inch short.
"I haven't been in this kind of atmosphere for a year. I really missed this," Park said. "It inspires me to play my best."
The Women's Open has been boom and bust for Sorenstam, mostly the latter.
She won this major in consecutive years early in her career, but has gone 10 years - and 63 victories on the LPGA Tour - since last hoisting the most important trophy in women's golf. Sorenstam wasn't even the heavy favorite like she normally is, mired in her longest stretch without a victory - eight tournaments - in more than five years.
Now, everything is looking up. "After three or four holes, I really felt good about my game," she said. "I didn't think about it anymore."
But she knows there is a long way to go. The second round will be Saturday, followed by a 36-hole finale on Sunday. Along with being a tough test, it might be for the fittest.
"We know it's going to be a long weekend," Sorenstam said. "You've got to be in good shape. It's going to favor the one that can handle that. There are some players out here that are in good shape, and I'd like to think I'm one of them."
n PGA: Darron Stiles made a 10-foot birdie putt on his final hole to top a crowded leaderboard in the Buick Championship at Cromwell, Conn.
Stiles shot his second straight 4-under 66 to take a one-stroke lead over Australia's Peter Lonard, with 25 players within four strokes of the lead - including three who have won on the TPC at River Highlands.
  • CHAMPIONS TOUR: David Edwards shot a 9-under 63 to take the first-round lead in the Greater Kansas City Golf Classic at Overland Park, Kan. The 50-year-old Edwards did not have a bogey in his morning round. On the 442-yard par-4 18th, he rolled in a 60-footer for his ninth birdie and a two-stroke lead over Bob Gilder, Tom Jenkins, Des Smyth and Brad Bryant.
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