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Wearing Out the LPGA's Welcome Mat!

By John M. Ross,
Annika Sorenstam
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Sweden's Annika Sorenstam is rewriting some important passages in the LPGA record book. (.)

It's not as if someone will soon have to pass the hat for them or find some way of getting them food stamps, but the young ladies who ply the LPGA tour for a living are wondering if the rules have been changed. Are American golfers still allowed to win?

Since the start of the year, ten consecutive winners' checks have gone to foreign players, with the Yanks being completely shut out through mid-April.

There are no signs of an anti-American plot being hatched by the invaders, but some of the girls consider the recent moves by Sweden's Annika Sorenstam as nothing short of a terrorist attack. With four straight wins and two runner-up finishes over a six-week period, she seems to be sending out a warning that no one is allowed in the winner's circle ahead of her.

In addition to scooping up a large share of the available prize dollars, the comely Swede is also rewriting some important passages in the record book like her first-time-ever 59 at Phoenix. And her spring spree also has moved her to the very top of the LPGA career earnings list.

On the heels of the domination of the tour last year by Australia's Karrie Webb and Sorenstein, who won 12 events between them, the Americans are looking at that big, attractive welcome mat and wondering if this is such a good idea. Of course, there are a whole platoon of others out there like Laura Davis, Janice Moodie, Sophie Gustafson, Liselotte Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, to cite a few who have also been monopolizing the Yankee dollar. And if it continues, it could have some effect on the balance of trade.

Other than Julie Inkster and Meg Mallon, the Americans have only limited firepower in their lineup to challenge the high-flying foreigners. Inkster did recapture some credibility for the U.S. in the Samsung World Championship of Golf late last year, when she left both Annika and Karrie in the dust. But thus far, the homegrown LPGA contingent shows few signs of being able to slow down Annika, Karrie and the other invaders.

When Webb rolled along last year, piling victory upon victory, many likened it to Tiger Woods' high-handed domination of the men's tour. Tiger had nine wins in 20 starts, including three majors. Karrie had seven out of 22, plus the U.S. Open and the Nabisco. But it seemed that the golf fans had eyes only for Tiger. Webb's remarkable year caused only a ripple in comparison.

But it did stir Sorenstam. She had reigned as the game's Queen Bee before being nudged off her throne, and she didn't like it. When the season ended, she vowed to regain her place at the top, and she set out on an ambitious training program and practice regimen. The results are now on display, and that name at the top of the money list is Annika Sorenstam.

It wouldn't be wise to count out Karrie Webb at this point. She is a superb player and, at age 25, she won't accept the No. 2 spot. But at the pace Annika is now setting - four consecutive victories through the Office Depot Classic - she is likely to have a shag bag full of records, and the American gals mumbling, before the season ends. And what if Karrie Webb manages to turn up the heat? Well, there's always prayer.

The Americans thought they had finally snapped the spell as the Office Depot Classic wound down to the final round and California Pat Hurst had a ten-stroke lead over Annika. It turned out to be wishful thinking. Sorenstam not only won again, but she orchestrated the biggest final-round comeback in the history of the LPGA.

To be fair, it wasn't all Annika that pulled it off. A final round 77, with bogeys on six of the last ten holes, marking an unbelievable collapse, dropped Hurst into a third-place finish. Actually, Sorenstam finished in a tie with Mi Hyun Kim, and then won it on the first playoff hole.

Sure, this is the Land of Opportunity, but, ladies, let's not be greedy.

The World Golf Hall of Fame has announced the nominations for this year's election to its hallowed halls and that always brings on a wave of nostalgia. It is a huge wave for me this time, since two of the names on the list, Ken Venturi and Tony Lema, trigger a whole collection of personal reminiscences.

Ken and Tony came out of the caddy pens and junior golf programs of the San Francisco Bay area, and the paths they followed to the upper echelon of the game could keep a script writer hunched over his machine for weeks on end. They played with and against each other in competition, but they weren't bosom pals. Yet, Tony liked to underscore the link between them by revealing that his very first pair of golf spikes were bought for him by Ken's mother. Until then he played in sneakers.

Observers who watched them as youngsters tabbed them as sure-fire winners and they were right. Incredibly right, for in 1964 these two fellows from the Bay Area neighborhoods won the world's two biggest golf titles. Ken, barely able to stay on his feet in the 106-degreeheat of Washington's Congressional, staggered in to win the U.S. Open. And Tony left Jack Nicklaus five strokes to the rear in winning the British Open at St. Andrews. Wonder what the Las Vegas odds would have been on that?

Oddly enough, both also gathered under the wing of Fred Corcoran, the promotional whiz who made household names of Sam Snead, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and other sports heroes. I remember Corcoran, a dear friend of mine, telling of his flight to Scotland with Lema. On a roll of four tournament wins in six weeks, Tony was on a tight schedule that didn't allow him time for suitable practice at St. Andrews. This worried Fred.

Trying to be helpful, during the trans-Atlantic flight, Corcoran told Tony about some of the demons that awaited him on the ancient, windswept course. He went over it, hole by hole, while Lema curled up in his seat. Finally, Tony interrupted the monologue.

"Fred, I don't want to hear any more about it. Just let me tee it up out there, that's all I ask. I let them build the courses. I play 'em."

Lema was a frequent winner on the tour and in Ryder Cup play, a colorful free spirit who reminded some of the flamboyant Walter Hagen. He celebrated every victory by ordering champagne for the writers in the Press Tent, and before long they toasted him as "Champagne Tony." (Thanks, of course, to a nudge by Corcoran.)

I was lifting one with Tony and writer Oscar Fraley in the men's grill of the Firestone Country Club at the end of the PGA Championship in July of 1966, and he kept checking his watch. "I don't have much time," he said several times. He was scheduled to be picked up by a private plane and flown to an exhibition match in Chicago.

Tony's clock-watching was prophetic. He didn't have much time, indeed. Barely an hour or so after we bid our farewells, the plane carrying Tony and his wife crashed in a field near a golf course in Indiana. He was only 32, and many thought he was at the peak of his career.

There was a touch of sadness, too, to Venturi's playing career, and the Masters serves as an annual reminder. In 1956, Ken led the Masters for three rounds and was about to become the first amateur to win the Green Jacket when disaster struck. He blew a three-stroke lead, ballooned to an 80, and opened the door to Jackie Burke, Jr.'s victory.

Again, in 1960, Venturi led the Masters into the final heat, this time with a one-shot lead over Arnold Palmer. The cruel hand touched Ken again. This time, Palmer birdied the last two holes and won by a single stroke.

Ken didn't recover from this setback very easily. Indeed, he went through a period of despair and lackluster play for several years before he rallied to that glorious win in the U.S. Open. But even this was short-lived. A wrist problem, further complicated by surgery, cut short his winning days on the tour. But, many agree his biggest triumph was the conquering of his nervous stuttering that ultimately led him into a long career as the game's favorite TV commentator.

In Corcoran's great book, "Unplayable Lies," published in 1965, he finishes his reminiscences of Tony and Ken with this prediction: "Both of these former caddies who came out of the same San Francisco greenhouse of golf are solid bets to wind up in golf's Hall of Fame."

I hope he's right.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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