Sorenstam seeks third straight major at Open

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – They could try to take out her knees, but in the genteel world of golf, that would be considered terribly unsportsmanlike.

They could try to hit the gym for more strength and stamina, but that won't work overnight.

Mental game? Short game? Too little, too late.

Annika Sorenstam is so far ahead of her peers on the LPGA Tour, there is no quick fix that will help stop her.

The U.S. Women's Open begins Thursday at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver, and Sorenstam is the preeminent favorite to capture her third straight major this year.

In each of the previous two, Sorenstam built a huge lead through 54 holes and enjoyed a Sunday coronation. Is the Grand Slam going to be that easy?

"The bottom line is we can't let her get too far away, because it's really hard when you have a player of her caliber who doesn't make many mistakes," said Cristie Kerr, second on the LPGA money list to Sorenstam by more than $600,000. "If somebody is going to be in contention some Sunday, and assuming she's there, we're going to have to keep the heat on."

And the only way that happens, it seems, is if Sorenstam is off her game.

Much as during Tiger Woods' incredible run from 1999 through 2001, whenever Sorenstam's name goes up on the leaderboard, it sends a chill through every competitor.

They know she can hit the ball as far or farther than any other player. They know she hits more fairways and greens. They know she rarely makes unforced errors.

"I think she intimidates a lot of people," Kerr said.

Wonder why.

Sorenstam has won 19 of her 38 LPGA Tour events since playing against the men at the PGA Tour's Colonial in 2003. This year, she has won six of her eight starts, and eight of her last 10. Her scoring average is a whopping 2.05 strokes better than the next best player. That's eight strokes better over the course of a 72-hole event.

Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps Sorenstam's LPGA peers will begin to do what she has done.

Last week, Sorenstam played rounds at Pine Valley in New Jersey and Merion in Pennsylvania. Those are venerable courses known for their toughness. Sorenstam goes to the back tees, always seeking to challenge herself.

About four years ago, Annika began working with a personal trainer, doing weight training, flexibility and balance drills. She has always been an accurate driver and good iron player but was never exceptionally long. Now she leads the tour in driving distance, averaging 274 yards off the tee.

And Sorenstam knew there were parts of her game that could improve. Players who hit a lot of greens are typically not as good around them. They don't have to be. But she wanted a better short game. So she consulted Woods.

"People don't realize how hard she works," Woods said last week at the U.S. Open. "We worked on our short games together this fall. You can't believe how hard she works. She didn't get to this level by just hoping she could play well. She went out and worked and took it to another level."

So to beat Sorenstam, it is going to take time. And perhaps by the time Paula Creamer (18), Michelle Wie (15), Natalie Gulbis (22) and Lorena Ochoa (23) hone their games, Annika will be on the way out.

For now, however, there is not much they can do but play their best and hope.

"Last year at the U.S. Open, she played a great tournament, she had a great week but somebody played better," said LPGA Tour player Jill McGill. "That's the game of golf. You can be the best player, you can be in the zone, you can be hitting unbelievable shots, and that week somebody is just a little bit better than you. And there goes the Slam."

Five Things To Bank On
1. Sorenstam will not enjoy much of a length advantage at Cherry Hills, despite its 6,700 yards. Because of altitude, the course is not playing long. In fact, Sorenstam said she might hit only two or three drivers per round.

2. Then again, her accuracy will be a huge advantage. The rough is brutal. And nobody is straighter than Sorenstam.

3. Don't expect Meg Mallon to successfully defend her title at the Women's Open. She hasn't had a top-10 finish all year.

4. Sergio Garcia should take some momentum into his defense of the Barclays Classic on the PGA Tour. He won two weeks ago at the Booz Allen Classic and finished T-3 at the U.S. Open.

5. Ryan Moore, the nation's No. 1-ranked amateur, has turned pro and is making the Barclays Classic his first pro tournament. And there is no time to ease into the professional ranks. Moore has seven sponsor exemptions – plus extra spots for top-10 finishes – in order to earn enough money to secure his PGA Tour card for 2006.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.