Women pioneers prepare return to familiar battle

Women's British Open: Sorenstam and Webb must adjust to different demands after prime-time televised mixed match with Woods and Duval
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When Annika Sorenstam said that the difference between Monday's television spectacular in California and the Women's British Open, starting at Sunningdale today, was "like night and day", she was spot on. The "Battle of Bighorn", as the prime-time mixed foursome was billed, featured the best two players from both the men's and women's games, with Sorenstam and Tiger Woods beating Karrie Webb and David Duval, the new Open champion, at the first extra hole.

The match, staged in Palm Springs and requiring the last five holes to be played under floodlights, finished well after midnight, New York time, and after dawn in London. Sorenstam and Webb then jumped on a Gulfstream G4 private jet for the 12-hour journey, plus a refuelling stop in Maine, arriving in England on Tuesday evening.

"Where am I?" wondered Sorenstam. "It was a long flight, a long day. I am very tired, I must admit. It was hard to sleep on the plane because we were still very excited about the match." Yesterday morning, both women were on parade for the usual pre-tournament pro-am. "The sun is up so I've got to be awake and playing golf," Webb said. "That's about all I know." It was, both players admitted, a curious way to prepare for a major championship.

Woods would not have even considered it, but the men's No 1 was the main reason for the scheduling – he also deserves the credit for offering the women's game an unprecedented spot in the limelight. Two years ago, Woods beat Duval in the first of the matches, but last year he lost to Sergio Garcia.

The young Spaniard made much of his victory, rather more than Woods thought appropriate given that the American had just won his third successive major and another tournament by 11 strokes. The format was switched to a team match and the idea was eagerly embraced by Sorenstam, who shares the same manager at the International Management Group as Woods and Webb.

It was all a little different from the famous match in Atlanta in the 1930s when Bobby Jones played with the English amateur Joyce Wethered and pronounced that she possessed the best swing he had ever seen. Stifling conditions, a baked course and strong crosswinds meant the quality of golf at Bighorn was not the highest. Early indications are that the viewing figures were down on the previous two all-male affairs but were comfortably greater than for any women's tournament.

"It is not something I regret doing at all," said Sorenstam. "I had a great time and it was worth every minute. But this is not how I would prepare for a major. I would usually come in early to adjust to the time and the weather, so coming in last minute is not the best preparation."

"I'd say that was very fair," Webb agreed. The Australian won the US Women's Open and the McDonald's LPGA Championship and so is going for her third major in a row. "I hadn't won one major before they asked me and I don't think it would have been possible to change it two weeks before given everyone's schedules.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and, I thought, there will be more British Opens. It wasn't just the chance to play with Tiger, although he is the biggest thing in the game right now, but with David and Annika in an exciting format. It was good to be part of something that doesn't happen very often. The conditions were tough, though. It was set up more like a US Open than an exhibition."

Sorenstam hopes they will get the chance to repeat the experience, but the word is that next year Woods and Jack Nicklaus will be taking on Ernie Els and Gary Player. But the prospect of a match between Webb and Woods, both of whom have won five of their last eight majors, is unlikely. "I don't want to be the Billie Jean King of women's golf," Webb said. "I don't feel society needs a battle of the sexes, and that is how it is bound to be promoted.

"As excited as I was to play in the match, it was difficult for me to get up for it mentally. Whether I won or lost it was not going to affect me so I was not as focused as at a US Open or here."

Both women found it a new experience to play in front of a vocal gallery. "We are not used to people shouting while we are hitting," Webb said. "Someone shouted at us to three-putt on the 16th but I think that was because they wanted the match to go on." Asked if she had learned anything from the match, Webb replied: "No, I don't think so."

Sorenstam said: "It was interesting to see how focused the guys were given all the noise and the cameras flashing once it got dark. When I had a difficult shot, Tiger came over and just told me to really focus on what I wanted to do. We didn't talk much about technique but Tiger said he watched a lot of the women's golf and he knew things you could only know from following it closely. David was pretty quiet, but quite often he would turn round and say something funny. We talked a bit about snowboarding."

The 30-year-old Swede won her first major for four years at the Nabisco Championship in March. That came in a run of four successive wins on the LPGA Tour that also included the first-ever round of 59 by a woman. But it has been Webb, 26, who has been dominating the majors over the last two years, successfully defending her US Open crown at Pine Needles in June and then claiming the LPGA Championship. Immediately after that win she flew home to Ayr in Queensland but her grandfather died before she had returned.

Webb, winner of the British Open at Woburn in 1995 and at Sunningdale in '97, has since struggled with her game. "My swing is not as good as it was a month ago but I have gone into tournaments this way before and won so hopefully something will click on the range."

Sorenstam, on the other hand, feels good about her game after working with her instructor last week. "All I need is some sleep and then I'll be ready to go."