Swede rises to the top with Tiger-like season

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The Independent Online

Sweden's Annika Sorenstam has always dreamed big.

She became the first woman in history to shoot 59, although her ultimate quest is to make birdie on every hole for a 54. She finished off one of the greatest seasons in LPGA Tour history, then said it fell just short of her goals.

"Actually, I had set up 10 victories this year, and I didn't win 10," Sorenstam said yesterday after her runner–up finish in the LPGA Tour Championship. "But I'm very, very close."

That was about all the 31–year–old didn't do this year.

Sorenstam left Trump International with all the LPGA awards – money title, player of the year and Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average – and planned to spend the next two months relaxing, cooking, skiing and taking time to reflect on her year.

Her eight victories were the most since Nancy Lopez won nine as a rookie in 1978. Lopez won five in a row that year; Sorenstam won four in a row, including a major championship at the Nabisco where she held off all the top players on the back nine.

Sorenstam became the first $2 million woman in golf, finishing second at the Tour Championship behind Karrie Webb to end the year with just over $2.1 million.

And she had a strong finishing kick. Needing a 66 in the final round on a tough course, she went one better by playing the final 10 holes in 6–under par for a 65 that broke the LPGA's record season scoring average.

Sorenstam ended the season with a 69.42 average; Webb had a 69.43 average in 1999.

She will let everyone else debate where her year ranks.

"If it's not the best, it's not the third–best either," LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said. "Certainly, Nancy in 1978 with five in a row and nine victories would probably be the most analogous in terms of modern–day history. But with her 59, with her four wins in a row, with her major championship, with her scoring average, I would be hard–pressed to think of more than one other better year."

The same debate was going on last year with Webb.

The 26–year–old Aussie won seven times, including two majors by a combined 15 strokes. She set an LPGA record with nearly $1.9 million. Webb won three of her first four starts and never finished worse than sixth until June. Her pace slowed at the end of the year.

Sorenstam was in top form from start to finish.

"She's played consistently well through the whole year," Webb said. "She really hasn't had too much of a down period at all."

Sorenstam's only regret was not seriously contending in the majors after winning the Nabisco. Still, after Se Ri Pak won the British Open to take over the lead on the money list, Sorenstam had an answer.

In her next three events, Sorenstam had one victory and two runner–up finishes. At year's end, she went over to Asia and won twice, including a comeback victory over Pak in the finals of the Cisco Ladies Match Play Championship.

Her performance was no accident.

"I wanted to be the player of the year. I wanted to win the Vare Trophy and the money list. I achieved that," she said. "Those were my goals. I set them early this year, when I was doing all those crunches in January."

No one was more fit. Sorenstam punished herself with a workout routine that included more sit–ups than she cares to reveal, kickboxing, cycling, running, swimming.

"I can tell you that I had a fun year in many ways," she said. "If this is what it takes to have fun, then I'm going to continue."

It might require just as much work.

She believes Webb sent a subtle message by winning the Tour Championship. Webb was never flustered by the windy conditions or the late charge from Sorenstam.

"That's her answer to my season," Sorenstam said. "I think it means that I've got to be ready for next year."

Sorenstam also got a scare this year from Pak, who missed the Tour Championship because of a family illness in South Korea. Pak won five times, including the British Open, and will go to the Nabisco with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam.

They are clearly the "Big Three" in women's golf. Sorenstam was at the top until she was surpassed by Pak in 1998 and Webb the next two years.

"This was the year I decided to give everything, and I got a lot of things back," Sorenstam said. "I wanted to be the best player out here. I've achieved that."

The next step is protecting her turf.

"I'm not going to retire, put it that way," she said. "I want to continue this and see how long I can do it."