Sorenstam Returns to LPGA After Colonial


Friday, May 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


AURORA, Ill. (AP) _ Annika Mania didn't end with the Colonial. Diehard golf fans and casual observers alike turned out en masse to welcome Annika Sorenstam back to the LPGA Tour on Thursday, giving an ordinary pro-am the feel of a final round.

About 500 people were waiting for her on the first tee, and a gallery of several hundred followed her from hole to hole. They cheered her every shot, and clamored for autographs.

One woman even brushed her arm just so she could say she'd touched Sorenstam.

``Obviously it's a little flattering, but it's a little hard to understand, I think,'' Sorenstam said. ``I was overwhelmed with everything. But I hope it will sink in in a few months or a year, whatever it takes.''

Though Sorenstam missed the cut in the Colonial, her historic stop on the PGA Tour touched a chord with people across the world. She played the Colonial simply to test herself, and she did it quite respectably.

But it was the grace she showed under unbelievable pressure that's won her millions of new fans. They may not know golf very well. They may not even be able to name any of the other players in the Kellogg-Keebler Classic, which begins Friday.

But they know Annika.

``I went to Starbucks this morning and everybody recognized me there,'' Sorenstam said, smiling. ``It hasn't really sunk in yet, and we'll see what comes out of this. But if I touched any little girl, any woman who felt like it opened doors for someone, that's great.''

Sorenstam's dominance on the LPGA Tour was never more evident than in last year's inaugural tournament at Stonebridge, where she matched the tour record for relation to par in a 54-hole event at 21-under 195 and won by 11 strokes.

She has been at the center of attention since she agreed in January to play in the Colonial, making her the first woman on the PGA Tour in 58 years.

Though she cherishes her memories of last weekend, she insists it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. She's back on the LPGA Tour for good, and hopes her life can return to normal.

``I've had a few days to reflect on the whole week and the more I think about it, the more I smile,'' she said. ``It was incredible. I'm so glad I did it. The memories, the experience, the people, the fans _ you name it. I almost get goose bumps sitting here talking about it, because it was so cool.

``But I'm happy to be here, and it's time to move on.''

Judging by the scene at Stonebridge Country Club, though, life will never quite be normal again.

Fans clustered around the putting green and driving range just to catch a glimpse of her. People carried Colonial flags for her to autograph, and the hottest items being sold were $3 buttons. ``Go Annika'' in Day-Glo yellow or ``Annika-Mania Catch It!'' in baby blue.

The gallery _ Annika's Army, perhaps? _ followed her like groupies, all but ignoring everyone else on the course, while security officers tailed her.

``She has the charisma,'' said Judy Smith of Chicago, who traveled to the Colonial last week and then cut her trip short to come back and see Sorenstam defend her title in the Kellogg-Keebler Classic.

And the adulation is reaching rock star level. Sorenstam was riding on the back of a cart as she made her way to the third hole when a woman reached out to brush her arm.

``I just had to touch you,'' she told Sorenstam.

Sorenstam seems to be taking it all in stride. She chatted and laughed with her playing partners in the pro-am, trading fist bumps when she got within 10 feet of the pin from 230 yards out on the first hole.

When the crowd greeted her with applause as she approached the 18th green, she acknowledged them with a bright smile and a wave.

She patiently worked her way up the rope line after her round, signing balls, hats, pictures _ pretty much anything placed within her reach. Even when fans blocked her way to the clubhouse, despite officials' pleas to move along, Sorenstam kept signing.

``I don't see a downside at all. It's very positive,'' she said. ``When you play a game and people respect what you do and recognize that, it's flattering. It's very nice when they compliment you, what I've done and what I've achieved.''