A few minutes after she completed a third-round 64 she described as "one of those rounds I'll remember forever," Annika Sorenstam set off on her final 18 holes Sunday with a six-shot lead in the LPGA Championship.
The next 11 holes were often forgettable for Sorenstam, but four birdies down the stretch, including a memorable wedge shot from the wrong fairway at the 16th hole, finally secured her second straight title in this second major championship of the year.
That third-round 64 was the lowest score of the tournament and her 14-under-par total at the time set a 54-hole record in the event by two shots.
But on the back nine a few hours later, the Swedish star suffered an uncharacteristic double-bogey, bogey, bogey stretch in the middle of her final round that cut her lead to only two shots over 19-year-old South Korean rookie Shi Hyun Ahn.
To her credit, Sorenstam quickly was back in full Hall of Fame mode when she made a 40-foot birdie putt at the 12th hole to regain her equilibrium, and she was able to make three more birdies in her final five holes to secure her seventh career major championship and successfully complete the first leg of her often recently stated goal of winning all three remaining major titles left on the 2004 LPGA schedule.
Sorenstam's final-round 72 and 13-under 271 provided a three-shot victory over Ahn, who posted a final-round 66 and 10-under 274. Ahn finished a shot ahead of compatriot Grace Park (68-276) for third place, a year after Park -- winner of this season's first major at the Kraft Nabisco in March -- lost to Sorenstam in a one-hole playoff at the 2003 event.
Ahn won one of the two tournaments she played on the LPGA Tour last season as a non-exempt member and this year leads the point list for rookie of the year. Playing in her first major championship, Ahn twice got to within two shots on the back nine, but Sorenstam also made a critical 25-foot birdie putt at the 390-yard 14th to keep her at bay, then essentially clinched her 52nd career victory and the $240,000 winner's check with a remarkable birdie at the 465-yard 16th.
"What can I say, it was totally up and down," said Sorenstam, who tied Juli Inkster for sixth on the all-time major victory list and became the first LPGA player to go over $14 million in career earnings. "Things started to fall apart, but I came back with a strong back nine. . . . I kept telling my caddy [Terry McNamara] it's going to be okay, it's going to be okay."
It was more than okay on No. 16, even after Sorenstam yanked her tee shot dead left into rough bordering the parallel 11th fairway. Sorenstam chose to play a 7-iron down that hole, rather than going sideways back to the 16th, leaving her with a 94-yard third shot to the pin, with tall trees and a bunker in her path. Sorenstam never hesitated, yanking out a 54-degree wedge and taking dead aim at the hole.
The ball soared high over the tree tops, landed softly on the green about 30 feet from the cup, then spun all the way back to within three feet for a brilliant birdie at the most opportune time.
"To tap that in for birdie was incredible," Sorenstam said, adding that the wedge shot that set it up was among the best shots of her already stellar career. "That's way up there. A lot of tournaments I've won I've been in the fairway. It took some guts to hit it there. I'm sure I'll remember that shot for a long time."
Sorenstam also likely will look back at this tournament and recall her play at the dogleg right 502-yard ninth hole, both in the morning third round and the afternoon final 18. A 36-hole Sunday was necessary for the first time in this event because rain washed out Friday's second round.
On Sunday morning, Sorenstam tried to cut the corner of the dogleg by hitting driver off the tee. Instead, her ball hit a tall oak, rattled around in the branches and leaves, then dropped straight down, a fortuitous outcome because it could just as easily have been lost in a stream or in the high grass and led to a debilitating bogey, or worse.
Instead, Sorenstam was able to advance her ball through an opening in the trees and up the fairway, leaving her about 80 yards from the flag on her third shot. She wedged that ball within six feet of the cup and made the putt, turning a near-disaster into the first of three straight birdies that separated her from the field by six shots at the time.
"The tee shot at nine [in the morning] was really a good break," she said. "To walk off with a birdie, I felt like a thief, a little bit."
When she walked to the ninth tee again in the final afternoon round, Sorenstam switched from a driver to her 4-wood, and drilled her first shot down the middle of the fairway. A second-shot 4-wood also soared straight and true, leaving her a relatively easy pitch. But Sorenstam hit her third shot over the green into deep grass. She tried to finesse a flop shot fourth to the putting surface to let her ball trickle downhill to the hole, but it didn't reach the green. Her fifth-shot chip left her with a seven-footer for bogey, and she missed by inches on the right for her only double bogey of the tournament.
She still had a five-shot lead going to the turn, but three-putted from seven feet at the 360-yard No. 10, then did it again at the 528-yard 11th, missing a 21/2-footer for par to fall to 10 under for the tournament, giving hope to Ahn, then at 8 under playing three groups ahead.
There was more hope for her pursuers when Sorenstam's tee shot at 16 went far off target down the wrong fairway. But Sorenstam's birdie there, as well as a 12-foot birdie putt at the 156-yard 17th, allowed her to take a victory walk up the 18th hole, even if she did make bogey from a bunker to shrink her victory margin to three.
"I was able to do it when I needed it," Sorenstam said. "Majors mean so much to me. I felt so good coming in here. I didn't want to let this one go."