Annika Sorenstam had every reason to believe the toughest test in golf would always be the easiest to win.
Playing like she had nothing to lose, Sorenstam wound up winning the U.S. Women's Open for her first LPGA Tour victory in 1995. A year later, she missed only five fairways the entire week and shot 66 in the final round to win by six strokes, setting a Women's Open scoring record at 272.
``I thought, 'Oh, I can do this. This is a piece of cake,''' Sorenstam said. ``At the time, it felt easy because I won two in a row. The U.S. Open is the biggest tournament we have, and the last time I won by (six shots) at Pine Needles.
``But then I started to put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted it too badly. And I got in my own way.''
Seven years later, the Women's Open now is the one tournament she can't seem to win.
Sorenstam has gone through an amazing transformation since winning those back-to-back Open titles. The shy Swede known as ``Miss Manners'' has become one of the most dominant players in LPGA history with a list of feats that rank her among the best ever:
_ The first woman to shoot 59 and break the $2 million barrier.
_ The first woman in 45 years to play on the PGA Tour, which gave her first-name celebrity around the world.
_ The career Grand Slam.
_ Induction into the Hall of Fame at the ripe age of 33.
The only thing missing during her meteoric rise in golf is the trophy that matters the most. Even Sorenstam is perplexed by what has taken her so long to add another U.S. Women's Open title to her collection.
``I've always felt so comfortable. I've always felt prepared. I always expected to win,'' she said. ``And when I didn't, I put even more pressure on myself. Not until lately have I been more patient. I don't think about the trophy on Thursday. I know that scores are not always going to be low in the majors.''
Sorenstam gets another chance to end her seven-year drought in the U.S. Women's Open next week at Orchards Golf Club, a Donald Ross design on the campus of Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass.
She will be the heavy favorite, as usual, especially after outlasting the field during a 36-hole final round to win the LPGA Championship for her seventh major and 52nd career victory.
Competition comes from all shapes and sizes.
Grace Park won this year's first major at the Kraft Nabisco, denying Sorenstam her only stated goal of sweeping the majors this year. And the teen parade is stronger than ever, led by 14-year-old Michelle Wie and 17-year-old Paula Creamer, both of whom already have shown they can hold their own against anyone.
Along with being a tough test because the USGA wants it that way, there is built-in pressure with a $3.1 million purse, more than double the typical prize money on the LPGA Tour.
``The Open separates itself from any other tournament,'' said Meg Mallon, who won the Open at Colonial in 1991. ``No other tournament affects your year like that one.''
For Hilary Lunke, it changed her life.
A year ago at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, the short-hitting Lunke shocked everyone by winning on the longest course in Women's Open history. She relied heavily on her bouquet of fairway metals, all the way up to an 11-wood, and made just about every putt to get into a playoff and then beat Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins.
Lunke earned $94,660 in 25 events on the LPGA Tour, and $560,000 from the Women's Open.
``Pretty much my world was swept upside down last July in a great way,'' Lunke said. ``My game suffered a lot last year right after the Open. I was just mentally and physically drained.''
Sorenstam was seething, especially after she threw away a chance to win the Open.
Only one shot out of the lead, Sorenstam crushed her drive on the par-5 18th and had only a 4-wood left to the green. All she needed was a birdie to win the Open, but disaster unfolded with one swing.
Her 4-wood sailed right toward the trees and landed next to a portable toilet. After a free drop, she chipped into the bunker, failed to get up-and-down and made bogey to miss the playoff by one shot.
``I have a tendency when I get quick to push it right, and that's what happened,'' Sorenstam said. ``But it wasn't that shot. I had so many chances through the back nine. Even those it came down to the last hole, those are the things that you remember.''
She hasn't forgotten two years ago, either, when Sorenstam looked like a shoo-in at Prairie Dunes in Kansas. She had a two-shot lead going into the final round and shot even-par 70, the kind of final round by a leader that almost always wins the Women's Open _ just not that year.
Juli Inkster put together one of the best rounds of her life, a 4-under 66, to win by two.
``Juli just beat me. She had an incredible back nine,'' Sorenstam said. ``Last year, I felt like I had a good chance. I made a bad swing on the 18th hole and started to question myself. 'Am I too aggressive?'
``But at least I'm close, and I have a chance now.''
That wasn't always the case.
After her consecutive victories in the Women's Open, Sorenstam went to Pumpkin Ridge in 1997 with a chance to become the first woman to win three straight U.S. Opens. She caved in to the pressure and missed the cut, starting a run of bad luck and bad play in the biggest tournament.
Sorenstam is never more prepared than she is now.
She has learned to stop thinking about the trophy when she tees it up Thursday. And along with testing herself against the best last year at Colonial, she routinely plays practice rounds with Tiger Woods in Orlando, Fla., and Woods has called her at tournaments when he sees a glitch in her stroke.
Both are No. 1 on their tours.
Only one still has an aura that makes her even more difficult to beat.
Inkster, who also has won seven majors and will try to become the oldest Women's Open champion at 44, paid Sorenstam the highest tribute at the LPGA Championship.
``I never played with Mickey Wright,'' Inkster said, referring to the woman regarded by many as the best ever. ``But she (Sorenstam) is awfully good. She's down the middle. She's on the green. She's good.''
That's the kind of golf that usually wins the U.S. Women's Open.
And that's what makes it so peculiar that Sorenstam, the best in women's golf by a mile over the last three years, has had to wait so long to add another trophy to her collection.