| Women’s world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam has got counterpart Tiger Wood’s full backing ahead of her debut on the PGA Tour
London: Annika Sorenstam believes she has a chance to shine at the Colonial Classic in Texas, which starts on May 22, where she will become the first woman to challenge the men in a PGA Tour event in 58 years.
But although the 32-year-old Swede has specifically chosen the par-70 Colonial Country Club course for its relatively short length of 7,080 yards, her presence in the tournament has met with a mixed response from the men.
“I believe that I have got a chance at the Colonial, otherwise I wouldn’t go,” Sorenstam said at last week’s Nichirei Cup World Ladies tournament in Tokyo, where she coasted to victory by nine strokes.
“But for me, personally, this is a one-time opportunity. I want to see how good I am against the best men in the world on a course that I think I can handle.
“The previous winners at Colonial aren’t known for power. They’re known for managing the golf ball. I believe that’s my strength.”
Sorenstam’s decision to take up one of eight sponsors’ exemptions to play in a limited field at an invitational tournament has sparked a wide range of emotion.
However the Swede, who will become the first woman to play on the PGA Tour since Babe Zaharias in the 1945 Los Angeles Open, does not want to become involved in a ‘battle of the sexes’.
“I’m not here to prove anything,” she said. “I’m here to test myself and face a new challenge. I just look at it as the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my career.
“But it is on the LPGA Tour that I still want to set records. That is my priority.”
Tiger Woods is delighted that Sorenstam is in the field for the tournament. He has given his full backing ahead of her debut on the PGA Tour and said the Swede should be given ‘four or five’ starts on the men’s tour.
“I think it would be more fair if she got four or five starts then maybe you could judge what kind of player she is,” said the men’s world No. 1.
“With just one start, anything can happen, she could get a stiff neck and play poorly. That would be unfortunate if it is down to just one event.
“If she were able to play four or five events there would be more rhythm to it and we’d probably see her play better.”
“I think it is great she is playing but it will only be great for women’s golf if she plays well,” he said. “If she goes out there and puts up two high scores, then I don’t think it is going to be. It is going to be more detrimental than it is going to be good.
“If she built up her record and won, let’s say, 10 Majors, then nothing could take away from that — no matter what she did at Colonial,” added Woods of Sorenstam, who has surprisingly won just four major titles in nine years.
World number four Phil Mickelson, Colonial champion in 2000, believes the layout should suit the Swede.
“I think it is great,” he said. “I am as curious as anybody to see how the best player on the LPGA, and possibly of all time, will play against the men.
“It is not like she is a slouch. She is one of the best ball-strikers and putters in the game.”
But defending champion Nick Price and twice Major winner Vijai Singh hold very different views.
Price, who won last year’s title by five shots, said the Swede’s presence “reeks of publicity”, adding that she should have to qualify for a PGA Tour event if she wanted to prove herself at the highest level.
Asked about Price’s remarks, Sorenstam replied: “I’m not going to defend myself. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I understand that.”
Vijai, winner of the 1998 US PGA Championship and the 2000 US Masters, said he hoped the Swede would miss the cut.
“Why'” he asked rhetorically. “Because she doesn’t belong out here. What is she going to prove by playing' It’s ridiculous. She’s the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasise ‘woman’. We have our tour for men, and they have their tour. She’s taking a spot from someone in the field.”
Woods said Vijai Singh’s assertion that he would pull out of the Colonial if he were drawn with Sorenstam was ‘unfortunate’.
“I don’t think (it’s widely held), it’s just Vijai’s opinion,” he said. “I’ve left a message for her, urging her to go out and play and compete.”
Sorenstam could be on a hiding to nothing, no matter how she fares next week.
If she performs well and makes the halfway cut the cynics will argue that nothing less was to be expected of the world’s number one women’s golfer.
If, on the other hand, the Swede struggles, those same cynics will accuse her of letting down the women’s game.
Unquestionably, criticism on either count will be grossly unfair. Women cannot hope to compete on a level playing field, largely because they cannot match the power play of their male counterparts.
“Whatever happens, I will walk away on Sunday having had a huge learning experience,” said Sorenstam. “And, whatever happens, I don’t think it will reflect badly on the LPGA. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”