After months of hype, it's finally time to play ball

FORT WORTH, Texas -- No matter how many swings Annika Sorenstam takes over the next two days, she is way under par in how she has handled the storm that has engulfed her since the Bank of America Colonial invited her in February to play.

Sorenstam is the cover girl on the June issue of Golf Magazine. Lesley Stahl profiled her for "60 Minutes". She bantered with Jay Leno. She has endured endless press conferences, and answered the same questions over and over with grace and good humor. At 9:58 a.m. ET Thursday, the speculation will end.

"I can't prepare any more," she said Wednesday afternoon, after steady rain ended the pro-am as she and her partners stood on the 11th tee. Sorenstam, without putting out on every hole, was 1-over. "I've been waiting for this day for a long time. I've been practicing a lot the last few months and I want the day to come. It's here. So whatever happens, happens."

Sorenstam drew the only gallery of any size in the pro-am Wednesday. If the comments of the fans who followed her are any indication, Sorenstam has won the hearts of North Texas golf fans.

"Annika, we're pulling for you," one man said quietly to her at the sixth tee.
"Texas luuuvvs yew!" one man yelled as she walked the ninth fairway.

Sorenstam turned and smiled in response. She signed autographs, waved, posed for photos and provided the sort of warmth to her partners and the gallery that is the trademark of the LPGA Tour. When Bob Albers, one of her amateur partners, made a birdie putt at No. 5, Sorenstam said, "Nice putt!" and walked over to him to bump fists.

"She can handle the pressure," said Albers, 62, a 4-handicap from Portland, Ore., who has played in two other pro-ams with Sorenstam. "That's what makes her a great player."
She has also impressed the other players in the field. Although they have bristled at answering so many questions about her, and some of them have made it clear that they don't believe she belongs in the tournament, there is a genuine curiosity about how she will play.

"Her attitude is perfect," Rocco Mediate said. "She's handled everything, all the crap, as well as it could be handled. She was asked to play. She had the guts to say, 'O.K., I'll see what I can do.' Most people wouldn't do that. She's not the bad guy. There is no bad guy."

"I hope she plays as well as she can possibly play," Tom Lehman said. "I hope she plays the best golf of her life, and she can see where she stacks up."

As for the sentiment that she shouldn't be in the field, David Toms, a member of the PGA Tour Policy Board, said there are no plans to insert a "men-only" clause in the Tour by-laws. But he didn't rule it out, either.

"There is a lot of stuff going on here from a media standpoint, a security standpoint, a lot of things going on that we don't normally deal with," Toms said. "Would we, would our staff, would the players that play this Tour, that have dedicated all their time to this Tour, would they want to do that every week and have to field questions that we have had to field for the last three months?"

In all likelihood, Toms said, the last three months are a one-time thing, which is just as well. Any attempt to pass such a rule would unleash a torrent of bad publicity for the Tour. "You had to make a rule like that 50 years ago," Mediate said. "If we do that now, we'd have a big problem."

The rain that has drenched the 7,080-yard, par-70 Colonial course is supposed to clear out Wednesday night. By Sorenstam's estimate, the rain added 300 yards to a course that's already several hundred yards longer than she plays on the LPGA Tour. "The only good news is that the greens are softer so I can fire more at the flag," Sorenstam said. "I'm going to hit a few longer clubs than I expected."

"The only bad thing is the weather," Mediate said. "The weather got her. It's so long we're hitting driver and three-wood on (the 246-yard, par-3) 4."

Sorenstam hit driver at the fourth, and, as on Tuesday, she failed to reach the green. However, she holed her 30-foot pitch for a birdie, her only one in 10 holes. She made bogey at No. 5, where she missed the fairway and the green, and made bogey again at No. 7, if you concede her the six-footer she picked up after one of her amateur partners holed his third shot for a birdie.

"The course is wet and long," Lehman said. "Like Augusta, the softer greens make it possible for everybody to compete. Soft greens and a long course don't always favor the long hitter. At the end of the day, it may help her."

Though Colonial is said to drain well, there has been so much rain that lift, clean and place is a possibility. While that would help Sorenstam, it would help the 113 men in the field, too, which would send the cut score lower. That's the sort of analysis that will mercifully come to an end, as will the hype that has built up over the last three months.

"If she can go out and play well and have confidence," said Mark Steinberg, her agent, "make the cut, no cut, it's not relevant. ... Most of the Tour players are like us. They just wanted to see what she would do. She has been so respectful of the game, the event and them."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.