Annika Sorenstam, the world's most dominant female golfer, announced today that she has accepted an invitation to play against the men at the Colonial Invitational in May in Fort Worth.
Not since Babe Didrikson Zaharias played in the Los Angeles Open in 1945 has a woman played in a PGA Tour event and Sorenstam, 32, received one of 12 exemptions extended by the tournament's sponsor, Bank of America. Zaharias, one of America's greatest all-around female athletes, made the 36-hole cut in the '45 Los Angeles Open and was eliminated in the third round with a 79.
The announcement upstaged preparations for Tiger Woods's return from knee surgery at the PGA Tour's Buick Invitational here this weekend and touched off debate among men and women over whether the experiment is good for the sport and whether Sorenstam can ultimately compete.
Woods, during a news conference, said: "I think it's great she's playing, but -- this is the 'but' part -- it will only be great for women's golf if she plays well. I think if she goes out there and puts up two high scores . . . it's going to be more detrimental than it's going to be any good."
Kris Tschetter, an LPGA Tour veteran from Fairfax, disagreed. "I don't see any downside in this for women's golf," she said. "It's not about whether she can beat the guys. It's just an opportunity to see how the number one women's player would do on the men's tour."
Sorenstam, in a brief statement, said: "There were many invitations, but the golf course and schedule of the Colonial were ideal. For all the well-wishers who want to know why I would accept such a challenge the answer is simple: I am curious to see if I can compete in a PGA Tour event."
Saying "all the attention and speculation is flattering," Sorenstam chose the Colonial Country Club, home of the tournament for 56 years and one of the shortest courses on the PGA Tour. At 7,080 yards, it is still 522 yards longer than the longest course on the LPGA Tour.
Earlier this year, another golfer, Suzy Whaley, made headlines by qualifying for this year's Greater Hartford Open by winning the Connecticut PGA Tour sectional tournament. Whaley, who hit from tees that were 10 percent shorter than the men's tees, is scheduled to play at the Greater Hartford Open, which is two months after the Colonial.
Both Sorenstam and Whaley will hit from the men's tees, PGA Tour officials said. Last week, the PGA Tour changed the rules so that players in sectional tournaments can qualify for tour events only by hitting from the regular tees.
Sorenstam, who stands 5 foot 6, is the LPGA Tour player of the year two years running. She has won more tournaments over that period -- 19 in 49 events -- than any other professional golfer, including Woods. Since 1994, when she broke in as the tour's rookie of the year, she has won 42 tournaments and amassed $11.2 million in earnings.
The daughter of an IBM marketing executive, Sorenstam, who was born in Stockholm, is known to break down her game into its smallest components, logging each shot into pie charts and spreadsheets. In recent years, she has added a maniacal fitness regimen, at one point doing 750 "crunches" or sit-ups, a day, and achieving such equilibrium she is able to stand perfectly still atop a balancing ball in both her shoes and bare feet.
"I'm not sure a woman of her size could be in any better physical condition than she is right now," said Judy Rankin, an LPGA Tour veteran of two decades who is now a golf analyst for ABC Sports.
Rankin said the most difficult aspect of Sorenstam's appearance at the Colonial may be dealing with the pressure and attention it will bring. "I think it's a very, very difficult stage to put yourself on," said Rankin.
Two years ago, Sorenstam teamed with Woods in a primetime "Battle of Bighorn" showdown against another LPGA Tour star, Karrie Webb, and David Duval in Palm Desert, Calif. Sorenstam and Woods won, but Sorenstam played poorly, and many observers believed the competition reflected poorly on women's golf.
Woods said he thought the scene at Colonial could be as big as a major championship "probably a little bit more because you are going to get other female writers and female journalists that probably don't exactly come to our majors."
In entering Colonial, Sorenstam appears to be trying to give herself the best opportunity to succeed. Her average driving distance, 265.6, puts her fourth on the LPGA Tour, but it would place her 148th on the men's tour. Phil Mickelson, who ranks second in driving distance on the PGA Tour, said Colonial "is a wonderful course for her."
"I don't think she's going to have that much of a length disadvantage there," he said. "Maybe the par 5s, but there's only two of them. Also, because the holes dog-leg, most tour players hit 2-iron, 3-wood off the tee, which will be where her driver is. So she'll just hit the driver and come in from the same spot."
Asked where he thought Sorenstam would finish, Mickelson said: "I think she will definitely make the cut. I think she'll finish around 20th, would be my guess."
And Mickelson? "I hope 19th or better."
Woods didn't sound as sure. "I think it all depends on the course and how they set it up. If they set up the pins in the corners like when I played there in '97, they are hard to get to. They really are."