For a woman dominating her sport the way Annika Sorenstam has taken over women's golf for most of the last five years, it seemed incongruous to hear her admit she was nervous as she teed off Thursday morning at Cherry Hills Country Club in the opening round of the U.S. Women's Open.
"U.S. Open, [a] lot of people, tough golf course, a lot on my mind," she said when asked about pre-round jitters that led to a rare drive in the rough and a bogey on her first hole. Sorenstam settled down thereafter and went on to post an even-par 71 that left her two shots off the early lead of 2-under 69 by Texan Angela Stanford, runner-up in the 2003 Open, and amateur Brittany Lang.
"If someone would have told me on the first tee we'll give you level par, I think I would have taken it," Sorenstam said. "You've just got to be patient in a tournament like this. So many holes, so much out there, so much can happen."
Sorenstam, who typically shows very little emotion, has plenty on her mind this week. She's attempting to win her third major championship of 2005, which would set herself up for the first single-season Grand Slam by a man or woman. If she wins here, she would need only a win at the British Open at Royal Birkdale in England July 28-31. (Bobby Jones achieved a Grand Slam in 1930, but two of his four victories were in the U.S. and British Amateur championships.)
With galleries of several thousand following her around the longest Women's Open course in history (6,749 yards), Sorenstam had three birdies and three bogeys on her scorecard on a morning when she scrambled brilliantly on her back nine -- the front side; she teed off on No. 10 -- to stay in touch with the leaders. She's won six times already this season, but never led after the first round in any of those victories, including both majors.
The afternoon round had a 75-minute weather delay when lightning was detected in the area. Play was suspended for the day at 7:10 p.m. when more dangerous weather came into the area with 48 players still on the course. Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old amateur who finished second to Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship two weeks ago in Maryland, was at 1 under through 16 holes when play was called for the day.
On Sorenstam's first nine holes, she had several decent birdie opportunities, missing a six-footer at the 12th and an eight-footer at the 17th. On the 459-yard uphill 18th, Sorenstam chose a 4-wood off the tee rather than risk an off-line driver that could kick into the lake down the left side or hop into deep rough down the right side. Her 7-wood second shot left her well short of the elevated green, and after an ordinary chip, she missed an eight-foot putt for par.
"I'm in between clubs there," she said of her club selection on No. 18. "Driver is too much, but 4-wood is not enough. I'm going to have to get another club, but I don't know what to get. I'd rather hit it on the fairway, have a long club in and go from there."
Sorenstam got back to even par on the famous first hole, where Arnold Palmer drove the green at the start of his final round in the 1960 Open to launch the greatest comeback in tournament history, rallying from seven off the lead to win his only Open title. Sorenstam used a 4-iron off the tee at the 346-yard hole, hit a wedge to within 15 feet and made the putt.
Then she was in full scramble mode, making par out of a bunker at No. 2 with a tough 18-foot putt, then making par at No. 3 when she missed the green, chipped to eight feet and made the putt. But her best work probably came at the 539-yard fifth hole, where she again hit iron off the tee for position, only to watch it drift right, clip the top of the tree line and tumble into deep rough.
She could only hack her ball another 50 yards down the fairway, then hit a fairway wood into a deep bunker protecting an elevated green. Unable to see the flag when she took her stance, Sorenstam took a huge swing and the ball exploded out of the sand and stopped eight feet short of the hole. She made that par putt, too, to stay at even par, then finally got into the red numbers when she sank a six-footer at the 187-yard No. 7.
Sorenstam gave one back on her final hole, the uphill 418-yard No. 9 when she hit a 5-iron second shot to the back fringe. She was given relief from a sprinkler head but when she dropped her ball, it nestled into a deeper lie than she expected. Her third shot darted 18 feet past the hole, and she two-putted from there for bogey on a round when she hit 11 of 14 fairways but only 10 of 18 greens in regulation.
In the group just ahead, Sorenstam heard plenty of gallery roars as she played her first nine holes because 17-year-old Morgan Pressel birdied four of her first five holes, posted a 31 and was at 5 under through 12 holes. Pressel, a native of Boca Raton, Fla., played in her first Open at age 12 and will be a senior in high school this fall. An honor student, she's already made a commitment to attend Duke, unless she decides to turn pro.
She struggled on her second nine, played the last two holes in 3 over and had to settle for her own even-par 71, a finish that left her in tears when she stepped to a podium behind the clubhouse and began answering questions about her round.
"I'm a little upset because I had it going so well, then it just entirely fell apart on me," she said. "You get it going real well, then all of a sudden it's just gone like that. I play with a lot of emotion and sometimes it helps me. Sometimes, like today, it might have hurt me a little bit."
Stanford also got off to a fine start with birdies on three of her first five holes, only to lose ground in the middle of her round before rallying with two more birdies in her last four holes. She described her day as "an emotional roller coaster.
"I'm expecting that this course is only going to get tougher," she said.