Webb–Sorenstam rivalry in full bloom

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Annika Sorenstam isn't about to let a bad week at the biggest championship in women's golf spoil her year. She still has five victories, including a major. She remains the only woman to shoot 59.

The difference now is she could have a serious challenger.

Karrie Webb, lurking all along while she recharged her batteries after a two–year reign atop the LPGA Tour, returned in spectacular fashion with an eight–stroke victory at Pine Needles.

"It's a long year," Webb said. "And there's still plenty of tournaments left."

Webb got off to a late start, the longest she has ever gone without winning in America since she arrived in 1996 and immediately sowed the seeds for a rivalry with Sorenstam.

It is now in full bloom.

Jack Nicklaus has said that the key to any great rivalry was not so much going head–to–head in the final round of a major championship, but taking turns winning them. That's what he did with Arnold Palmer early in his career and with Tom Watson a generation later.

That's one reason Tiger Woods has no rival.

Sorenstam won the Nabisco Championship in March for her third major, to go along with 25 regular tour victories. Webb won the Women's Open for her fourth major out of the last seven played and has 20 regular victories.

Both earned enough points for the Hall of Fame last year, although they have to put in 10 years before they can be inducted.

In the past six seasons, each has won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average three times, and each has won the money title three times. Sorenstam is 1–up in player of the year awards, and still has a substantial lead in this year's race.

Sorenstam failed to break 70 for the 16th consecutive round in a U.S. Open, dating to the final day at Pine Needles in 1996 when she, like Webb, won a second straight Open. After finishing 14 strokes behind, the 30–year–old Swede was asked whether Webb's performance indicated she will be tougher to beat the rest of the year.

"We'll see," Sorenstam replied.

Webb also fired a salvo as she left Pine Needles late Sunday evening when presented with the following scenario: If she had to choose one player to beat in a major championship, would it be Sorenstam?

"I guess so," Webb said with a smile. "Annika wants to be No. 1. I don't live and die for it, but I want to be No. 1. To be No. 1 at anything, even if it's only for a second ... not very many people get to say that.

"I don't know how people perceive who's No. 1 now," Webb added as she cradled the silver U.S. Women's Open trophy. "This year, I think Annika is No. 1 – so far."

Still on the LPGA schedule are two majors and one big purse, dlrs 2.1 million in prize money at the Evian Masters in France in two weeks. A year ago, Sorenstam defeated Webb on the first hole of a playoff.

The next week is the LPGA Championship, where Webb will try to become only the fifth woman to win the career Grand Slam. For Sorenstam, it will be her first chance to put this major behind her.

"I still feel good about my game, I have the same confidence," she said. "If I get a good finish there, I think I'll forget about this week a little faster."

Two years ago, David Duval appeared to be a shoo–in to be player of the year. He won four times in his first eight tournaments, and shot the only final–round 59 in PGA Tour history. By the end of the year, Woods had won twice as many tournaments and left no question as to who was No. 1.

One tournament doesn't change the dynamics on the LPGA Tour.

Sorenstam found herself between clubs most of the week, a tough position to be in on a course that required absolute precision. She didn't have her typical dose of a dozen birdie chances inside 20 feet, and had to scramble far too often for par.

"It just didn't go my way at all," Sorenstam said. "It was one of those weeks where you want a lot but don't get a lot. It was one of those weeks I might have to throw out the window and start over, and not have bad thoughts when I come into the next week."

Webb can only wonder if this is the beginning of another big wave.

"Like I said, there's still a lot of golf to be played," she said. "And hopefully, some of the good golf is going to be played by me."

She was the only player at par or better all four rounds at Pine Needles, and the only player to finish under par for the week, at 7–under 203 for an eight–stroke victory over Se Ri Pak. It was the largest margin in the Women's Open since Amy Alcott beat Hollis Stacy by nine strokes in 1980.

Webb missed only nine fairways. On every hole, she identified the one place that could lead to disaster, and never hit it there.

"When Webby is on, there's not a lot of golf that's more fun to watch," Robbins said.