SOUTHERN PINES, North Carolina (AP) _ Annika Sorenstam has plenty of fond memories of the course at Pine Needles. Now she hopes to be healthy enough to make some more.
Last year's U.S. Women's Open champion is hopeful that nagging neck and back injuries will heal by the end of June to allow her to defend her title at the site of one of her previous U.S. Open championships.
``Pine Needles has a special place in my heart for several reasons,'' Sorenstam said Monday. ``I love that whole area ... and I love coming back.''
A bulging disk in her back and a ruptured disk in her neck have Sorenstam off to her worst start since 1999, but she was optimistic she'll recover enough to try to become the third player to win four U.S. Women's Opens.
Doctors told her last week that she had improved by about 50-60 percent, Sorenstam said during a conference call during the U.S. Open's media day.
Sorenstam _ who claimed her third title last year by beating Pat Hurst in a playoff _ won it for the second time in 1996. That was the Open's first visit to Pine Needles, and this year it will be played at this south-central North Carolina course for the third time in 11 years.
``One of the reasons for our success has been the ingredients of what make a championship successful,'' said Kelly Miller, the tournament's general manager.
If Sorenstam is healthy enough to return, she'll find a revamped layout that was extended by about 400 yards.
The extension project to the 6,644-yard, par-71 course will change the way four holes are played, said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition.
The course also had its greens rebuilt, its pin placements were moved and its rye grass surface was replaced with Bermuda grass, Davis said.