Annika on Top Again in Kraft Nabisco

Friday, March 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) _ If Annika Sorenstam were any other player, she might have taken her licks on a rare bad hole and limped to the clubhouse with a respectable score.

She's not, and Sorenstam showed why when she came back from two horrible shots on the 16th hole Thursday to birdie the last two holes and take the first-round lead with a 4-under 68 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

``She's just the right one all the time, almost all the time,'' said France's Patricia Meunier-Lebouc. ``She's just the right place, the right balance all the time. When she's not, she's going straight back to it.''

Meunier-Lebouc played with Sorenstam in the first round of the first major of the LPGA Tour season and shot a respectable 70 herself.

She was in a group of four players two shots back, none of whom were surprised to see Sorenstam on top once again.

``You expect Annika to do that,'' said Laura Davies, another one of those at 70. ``It would be a little more worrying if she wasn't on the leaderboard. You'd wonder if something was wrong.''

Sorenstam actually began the day thinking even par would be a good score. The wind was blowing and the fairways looked narrow.

But she didn't win the last two Kraft Nabiscos _ and 11 tour events last year _ by not having some game.

Wary of the early wind, Sorenstam settled down by hitting her opening tee shot in the middle of the fairway. She got only better as the day went on, despite a pair of shots on 16 that almost ruined her day.

``Now I feel comfortable,'' Sorenstam said. ``Getting off to a good start is important. I know you can't win tournaments like this on the first day, but you can lose them.''

On the same course where she wore shiny red shoes in the final round last year and then got them wet with a victory jump into the pond on the 18th hole, Sorenstam looked more than merely comfortable.

Sorenstam's only real mistakes came at the 16th hole when she nearly pulled an 8-iron out of bounds and then mangled a flop shot. But she came right back to knock it to 12 feet on the par-3 17th for birdie and followed that with a scrambling birdie four on the 18th hole.

In the end, she was where most expected her to be _ at the top of the leaderboard after the opening 18 holes and with a chance to become the first LPGA Tour player to win the same major championship three years in a row.

``I was confident,'' Sorenstam said. ``When the wind died down, I was playing the way I'm used to playing a golf course.''

The day belonged to Sorenstam, who hasn't had a lot of success in majors but has won this tournament the last two years. She got an early start when the wind was still whipping around the Dinah Shore tournament course at Mission Hills Country Club, then took advantage when the wind died down.

``When we teed off this morning it was very, very windy,'' Sorenstam said. ``I read the weather forecast, and I thought it was going to get worse. I was really looking at par as a great score today.''

Though the wind affected play early, it calmed on a warm day in the desert. Players found the 6,520-yard course playing shorter than usual because the ball was running and the greens were firm.

Davies, who could complete a career grand slam by winning here, was a little disappointed the rough wasn't deeper but said the firmness of the greens more than made up for it.

``We were trying to hit it on the front of the greens and we knew it would bounce up,'' Davies said.

Sorenstam said the rough was plenty deep, though she only found it twice in a round that featured back-to-back birdies on the ninth and tenth holes and again on the finishing holes.

``I was hitting out of my shoes to go anywhere,'' she said. ``Maybe it's not as high, but it feels very healthy and very thick.''

While Sorenstam had the lead, she had to compete for the gallery with long-hitting 13-year-old Michelle Wie.

The eighth-grader from Hawaii consistently powered tee shots over 300 yards, outdriving her playing partners by 50 or 60 yards, on her way to an even-par 72.

``I had a really good time,'' Wie said. ``Natalie (Gulbis) and Christina (Kim) were really nice to me.''