The best is back: Undervalued Swede stuck on Tiger's tail

Self-effacing and modest, Annika Sorenstam goes into today's Women's British Open having suffered a rare spell in the spotlight - because she was not winning
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The Independent Online

Laura Davies yesterday called Annika Sorenstam "pound-for-pound, the greatest golfer, male or female, that has ever played the game." Instead of falling off their seats, the audience merely nodded and a few questions later were asking about Michelle Wie (again).

Such is Sorenstam's place in the golfing pantheon. Undisputed, but then nobody is taking much time to dispute it. Unarguably one of the best, but then where are the arguments raging? "Maybe not the best of the bests," the discussion will invariably start. "But anyway, back to Michelle..."

Davies herself laughed about the great non-debate, pointing out that the indifference was exactly what the Swede would be wishing for as she tees it up at Royal Lytham & St Annes today, looking to add the Women's British Open to her ever-swaying pile of major trophies. "She likes the quiet life," Davies said. "If she had her way, she would have even less publicity."

With that Sorenstam tiptoed in and set about proving everything that had just been said about her with such modesty that it led to suspicions she had been listening to Davies under one of the flaps of the media tent. "I really don't know what to say," she replied when the praise was put to her. "I do have some lofty goals and practise hard and I like to achieve and all that. But, I don't know, I just go out and play golf and enjoy it. It's tough when you compare men with women and different generations. What can I say? I'm flattered." And also, so obviously, extremely uncomfortable.

It will all be so different today, of course, when the talking ends and Sorenstam is allowed to present her case with action and not words. Annika can be Annika again, a fact Davies conceded when speaking of "not getting any change out of her in competition" and "making so few mistakes that unless you're at your absolute best, you may as well not bother".

Male professionals are often wont to utter the same statements of inferiority about one Tiger Woods and Davies believes there is a good reason for that. "If she was Tiger, she'd be treated like Tiger," claimed Davies, rather cryptically. "Because if she was a man she would be Tiger. The way she dominates us is better than anyone has ever dominated any other field over the same period of time. When she walks on to the tee on Sunday, it's like Tiger. They dominate their rivals in the mind, as well. They're so hard to distinguish between, it's spooky."

The goose bumps only raise themselves when the record books are consulted. Sorenstam has won 10 majors out of the 48 in which she has competed, while Woods has fared slightly better with 11 out of 45. Such proximity in both the statistical and friendship stakes has seen them famously start a little ritual whereby one texts the other with the score - for example, "11-10" - immediately after they have won a major. "I always seem to be trailing him and getting a text to say he's gone one ahead again," joked Sorenstam, although in reality it has been an increasingly one-sided conversation with the latter prevailing in eight of her last 23.

Last year, the numbers fairly pinged from her mobile and it was a good thing that the pair restrain from texting after every tournament win as Woods' message box would have hit overload. Sorenstam triumphed in 11 of the 21 events she entered in 2005, a giddying run that was made all the more remarkable by the fact she was divorcing David Esch, her husband of eight years, at the time. Sorenstam does not open up very often - if Tiger can sometimes be a closed book, then Annika can be a barricaded encyclopedia - but in this month's Golf for Women, the 35-year-old revealed how she managed to cope with it all.

"There are certain things in your life you can control and some you can't," she wrote. "I'm a person who gives 100 per cent and never gives up, so it felt like a bit of a failure. But now I look back on it and see that you can only give what you can give. I learnt it's sometimes OK to let go.

"You know, if you think about the big picture and what some people go through, then, comparatively, this was nothing. I told myself, 'Annika you can handle this. The bottom line is you're healthy and doing something you love, so go through it and learn from it'."

Thus, a series of firsts followed, which led to her yesterday picking up her second Player of the Year award (yes, of either sex) from the Association of Golf Writers in three years. An unprecedented hat-trick appeared to be another effortless campaign away when she ambled home in Mexico this year, but then for four long months and eight even longer tournaments the "Ws" dried up and inevitably the whispers came.

Ironically, as the world No 3, Karrie Webb, complained yesterday: "She's so undervalued - there was more interest in her having this so-called 'horrendous' time than when she was winning everything." But just as Sorenstam is content to brush off the compliments, so the slurs were as easily swept away.

"It was actually kind of funny when people think you're in a slump just because you haven't won in a few events," she said. "I took it as a compliment rather than a negative. I knew inside I just hadn't been living up to what I did in the past. And I knew it was still there."

In Rhode Island last month, her knowledge became truth when she won her first US Open in 10 years, by beating Pat Hurst in an 18-hole play-off. The realisation that the Indomitable One was back - indeed, had never really gone away - was best summed up by Hurst asking her conqueror to autograph her ball on the final fairway. "Pat, you can ask for anything, any time," giggled Sorenstam. "Do you have to wait for the 18th hole at the US Open?'" In fairness, it was perhaps the only time Hurst had ever felt near enough.

And if Davies' fears are true and this Sorenstam genuinely is the Sorenstam of 2005, then her victory at Lytham in 2003 could just be about to have a rapid reprise. She certainly has so much to aim for, being five behind Patty Berg's record major haul and one behind a certain text-mate. Soon her proper worth will have to be gauged. Then, it will prove mighty difficult to undervalue something so priceless.