Sorenstam sneaks in for a date with men and history

Rain puts Swede's preparations on hold as she is drawn with two rookies for opening rounds of her first PGA event
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The Independent Online

Short of going out with Tiger Woods in the final group on the final day of a major, Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber will never again experience the attention that will be thrust their way here tomorrow.

The two rookies have been handed the double-edged draw of playing with Annika Sorenstam as she makes her historic debut on the PGA Tour at the Colonial. On one hand, Barber and Wilson will simply be glad of a glint of the limelight as they attempt to make their names, but on the other they will be dreading becoming the first playing partners to be outscored by a woman on Tour since Babe Zaharias made three straight cuts in 1945.

And any doubts that the female world No 1's appearance would go passed unnoticed here were shown to be absurdly misplaced when Sorenstam arrived late on Monday - through the back gate. With nearly 80 reporters and photographers camped out in front of the Colonial clubhouse, inspecting each courtesy car to see if she was inside, Sorenstam sneaked into the driving range and took her place among the men.

Only Cliff Kresge was on the practice range as the blistering sun started to duck behind cloud cover late in the afternoon. Still, it was no ordinary day on the PGA Tour. Sorenstam will be the first woman in 58 years to compete on the Tour, and the Colonial marked the occasion by selling "Go Annika" buttons, along with a commemorative tin of her golf balls - each with her signature number 59 (her record LPGA round of a few year's back) and a stamp of her autograph.

These, however, were not quite as in demand as media credentials. Some 583 have been issued, and not only is that up from 178 last year, it computes to nearly five for every player in the field. Sorenstam got a taste of that early on Monday. After hitting balls for about 30 minutes, she got into a cart and was surrounded by 20 media - a scrum so thick the cart had nowhere to go.

The 32-year-old then got presidential treatment, with reporters shouting questions that could only illicit monosyllabic answers. "How will you handle the attention?" hollered one journalist."Don't know," came her reply, and the truth is that nobody was admitting they did. Everything remains a mystery and will do so until, after three months of hype, debate and controversy, Sorenstam gets to test her game against the best in golf after accepting a sponsor's exemption.

Even the hardened professional were curious. "I was expecting all this wildness," Kenny Perry said. "I came to see what it was all about."

The picture was no clearer early yesterday as Sorenstam's introduction to the PGA Tour proved to be short and wet. She began her practice round on the par-70 course in driving rain that had arrived on cue with her fellow Swede Jesper Parnevik and Spain's Sergio Garcia. Sorenstam hit only three shots on the par-five first hole before calling it a morning as the rain became heavier and thunder postponed practice .

By now the tension was building by the hour - and there was still two days to go before tomorrow morning's tournament tee-off. The delay was the last thing she needed, but fortunately Sorenstam had at least had the foresight to play a few practice rounds at the Colonial a few week's ago.

Despite this, she was was ready for the real thing being markedly different from anything she has experienced before. She is being shadowed by a female security guard at all times, is enjoying the ladies' locker room all to herself but will then, conversely, have millions watching her every move.

"Annika's going to have Tiger Woods' media," Perry said. "I'm anxious to see how she handles that. I don't think she knows what she's getting into. If she could play with no media, just a regular tournament, I think she could do well. But when she sees all the attention, well..."

Perry, and no-one else, was making any predictions.