Annika Sorenstam once came back from a 10-shot deficit in the final round to win the 2001 Office Depot tournament in Los Angeles. But her own office this week is a wickedly difficult Cherry Hills Country Club set up to identify the most skilled player in the U.S. Women's Open, and Sorenstam must rally from five shots back to achieve that distinction.
Arguably the greatest player in the history of her sport, the 34-year-old Swede is attempting to become the first woman to win a single-season Grand Slam -- victories in all four major championships. After nine holes Saturday that included two bogeys and a four-putt double bogey, her chances were diminishing. But playing her last nine in 1 under and with a third-round 73, Sorenstam was at 6-over 219 after 54 holes and still believes she can add the third leg of the Slam.
She will have to play catch-up against three co-leaders at 1-over 214: Karen Stupples and two amateurs, 15-year-old Michelle Wie and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel.
Wie and Pressel are trying to make a little history of their own: Either would be the youngest Open champion of all time, male or female.
"I'm coming here to win," said Pressel, who will play in the final group Sunday with Stupples as she attempts to join Catherine Lacoste of France in 1967 as the only amateurs to win the Open. "To be in that top spot going into the last day is really exciting. I think I can close the deal."
Said Wie: "I have to shoot under par [Sunday], no matter if I win or not. The more people that come, the better."
Whether or not Sorenstam prevails, this 60th Open may always be remembered as the start of a new era in the women's game, what with all those seemingly fearless teenagers at the top. In addition to Wie and Pressel, 18-year-old Paula Creamer, already a winner on the LPGA Tour, is a shot behind at 72-215.
The most impressive comeback Saturday involved Stupples, 32, the defending British Open champion. At 6 under through her first eight holes, she ran off six straight birdies to earn a piece of the lead. "To do it so many holes in a row kind of felt a bit unreal," she said. "Amazing when you start hitting good golf shots how everything else seems to fall into place."
Sorenstam began two hours before the leaders teed off with several thousand spectators lining every fairway. On her front nine, there were more groans than cheers, especially at the seemingly innocuous 158-yard sixth hole. Sorenstam apparently misjudged the wind and left her tee shot barely on the putting surface, about 50 feet from the flag.
She rammed her first uphill putt eight feet past the cup, then watched her par putt trickle downhill five feet past the hole. She missed that bogey putt, too, and a double-bogey 5 left her at 6 over for the tournament.
Asked about her meltdown, she said, "Not much more to say than 8-iron, putt, putt, putt, putt."
At the uphill 419-yard No. 9, she hit her drive underneath a pine tree down the left side. Concerned that an overhanging branch might impede her backswing, she took at least a half-dozen practice swings before her caddie, Terry McNamara, finally told her: "You've got room up there." She then took an uncharacteristic hacker's swipe, lifting her torso before making contact and very nearly whiffing. She topped the shot about 10 yards, hit her third to about 20 feet and missed the birdie putt to go to 7 over.
The only good news for her was that hardly anyone was making a move into the red numbers below par. By the time Sorenstam got to the 12th hole, no one was under par for the tournament, so she fought her way to the finish with eight pars and a birdie, sinking a six-foot putt at the 384-yard 13th, on her back nine.
"Things weren't going well, but it's the U.S. Open," McNamara said. "She grinded it out and we still have a chance. Cherry Hills is winning. If you miss the fairway, you have to make a long putt just to save your par. But she played hard. It's why she's so good. She just never gave up."
"I am running out of holes," Sorenstam said several hours before the leaders finished play. "I need to get off to a good start tomorrow. I need to climb on that leader board and show them I'm still here and I'm serious and we'll see. I don't think I'll need a miracle round, but it needs to be good."
There is precedent for such a comeback. This is the storied venue where Arnold Palmer rallied from seven off the pace going into his last round 45 years ago, shooting a 65 to win the 1960 U.S. Open. In 62 career victories, Sorenstam has trailed going into the final round 19 times and come back to win. This year, she was four down to Lorena Ochoa at the Safeway International, shot 70 in the last round to force a playoff and won on the first extra hole. At the MasterCard Classic, she was three down to Cristie Kerr, posted 68 in the final round and won by three.
Sorenstam said she'll probably get a bit more aggressive on Sunday. She only used a driver off three tees on Saturday, the better to keep her ball in the short fairway grass. Asked if she had any second thoughts about not being more aggressive Saturday, she insisted: "No, not at all. I think I made good decisions out there. I'm playing the way I had in mind. There's not lots I really want to change.
"I have 18 more holes to play and I'm going to give it all. I am not going to give up. I'm going to fight to the end. Hopefully I can putt it really well. I'm just hoping for a great day."