Golf: Distant dream for sisters

The Sorenstams are not close friends. But the Solheim is a tie that binds.
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ELEVEN years on, the memory of Europe's victory in the Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village is of Jose Maria Olazabal jigging across the 18th green. Should Europe's women repeat the feat of winning for the first time on American soil, in the fifth staging of the Solheim Cup this week, the celebrations will be of a Swedish persuasion.

For a country covered in snow for most of the year, Sweden has enjoyed a remarkable rise in international golf. No less than half the European team are Swedish, as is the captain, Pia Nilsson. Annika Sorenstam is one of them, and her sister Charlotta is another.

Annika, the world No 1, is two years older at 27 and only secured her place on the team by winning the Compaq Open for the second successive year in the last week of the qualifying. Of course, Nilsson would have selected her among the five captain's wild cards, but in that case Charlotta would not have been guaranteed a place.

There was no question Nilsson should pick Lotta Neumann and Catrin Nilsmark, who made the winning putt for Europe's only victory at Dalmahoy in 1992, to join Sorenstam and Helen Alfredsson, who were among the seven automatic qualifiers. England's Lisa Hackney, the American tour's rookie of the year in 1997, was also a likely selection, leaving Nilsson to ponder her last two places. They eventually went to Sophie Gustafson and Charlotta Sorenstam, both strong hitters who might be able to handle the lengthy Jack Nicklaus layout better than some.

But if Annika was thinking of doing anyone a favour, it would have been Nilsson rather than Charlotta. Nilsson, who was so successful as the head coach of women's golf in Sweden that her role was widened to include the men as well, first unlocked the talent of the future double US Open champion when she managed to cure Annika of her chronic teenage shyness.

Charlotta never had that problem. "They are different in every way possible," said their mother, Gunilla. Over the last couple of years the two sisters have hardly talked, while Charlotta's boyfriend of five years does not get on with the family. One of Nilsson's best qualities, and one that marked her out as the obvious candidate to take over from Mickey Walker as Solheim Cup captain, is her people skill. Keen to utilise Charlotta's talented golf on the team, Nilsson told the younger Sorenstam a few home truths at the beginning of the final qualifying event.

"They are never going to be best friends," Nilsson said of the Sorenstam sisters. "But they have sorted out their problems. I have had a word with a few players and told them exactly what I expect of them on my team."

But don't expect the pair to be picked together in the fourballs and foursomes. Nilsson admits it is a possibility but added: "I have many options - it is unlikely they will play together."

Both Sorenstams played tennis at an early age but switched to golf after they attended a summer camp when Annika was 12. The golf course was the only place Annika exhibited any teenage tantrums, and they did not last long. A solitary, independent kind of person, she found the course was where she was happiest.

While at the University of Arizona, Annika became the NCAA champion in 1991 but left after two years. She was the rookie of the year in Europe in 1993 and the States the following year. At her best, she just does not make a mistake, as shown by her two US Open victories in '95 and '96.

Her autobiography came out two years ago, entitled Dare to be Best. Charlotta has dared to follow the best. She was the NCAA champion in '93 but lasted only one year at University of Texas. Playing for the first time on the LPGA tour in '96, she was inevitably questioned about her older sister. "I don't want to talk about me and Annika," she said. "It's boring."

Charlotta, taller and blonder, is the more powerful striker of the ball and hits long irons instead of the seven and nine woods which are used by most in the women's game, including Annika. "She has a great swing, almost like a guy's swing," Annika once said. But there was a rider. "I just think she needs to work a little harder on her game."

Annika is leading the LPGA money list this season with three wins, while Charlotta is 28th and awaiting her maiden professional victory. "I'm thrilled for Charlotta," Annika said when the team was announced. "She deserved her spot and I'm delighted Pia picked her."

With four of the top-five players on the world rankings, Europe probably have their strongest team yet. But while they have always had the upper hand in the after-match party (Europe 4, USA 0), it will still take everyone pulling in the same direction to achieve a victory on the course.