Breaking The PGA Tour Barrier

Stahl Interviews World's Top Female Golfer

Swedish-born Annika Sorenstam dominates women's golf as Tiger Woods rules the men's tour. She has won 43 tournaments in just a decade. Lesley Stahl reports.

Practicing on the par four 18th hole of a course near her home in Florida, Annika is getting ready for her PGA tour debut by doing something she doesn't usually do.

Teeing off from the tee that is normally used by male pro players makes the course considerably longer. Sorenstam believes it adds about another 20-30 yards for every hole.

Her toughest challenge: power. No one disputes that men on the PGA tour are simply stronger and drive the ball farther.

On her first shot, she smacked it 265 yards. Who could hit further than that? Not many 5'6" women, that's for sure. In fact, not many people, period, score like she does. She's the first woman ever to break 60.

She won 13 tournaments last year alone, and a record $2.8 million in prize money.

What is the strongest part of her golf game? She says it's her mind.

"I'm very determined," says Sorenstam, who admits she's never lost her edge during a game. "I have a strong will, and I never give up. I'm very patient."

But she's never experienced this kind of pressure in a competition. The PGA stage is so much bigger, with 10 times the media attention and five times the prize money.

It all started in January when a reporter asked if she'd ever thought about playing in a men's tournament. Sorenstam said she'd love to participate, and suddenly she received 10 invitations.

"I didn't expect any, really," she remembers. "And now suddenly the opportunities are right there. I want to take one."

The invitation she took came from the Colonial Open, in Fort Worth, Texas, the home course of Ben Hogan, one of only five players ever to win all four Grand Slam titles

Why the Colonial?

"There's about 90 percent of the PGA tournaments that I don't have a chance to compete on because they're long and wide," says Sorenstam, who admits that the length of a course makes it difficult for a female player to compete with male PGA players.

"There's not a secret that men hit the ball farther, but there's a few courses where power and strength doesn't matter as much," she says. "And this particular course at Colonial, I think, falls into that category."

The Colonial course is shorter than average, and has a number of holes with sharp bends, called doglegs. That helps her because if one of the male players rips the ball as far as he can, it'll end up in the woods.

However, David Feherty, a pro golfer turned golf commentator for CBS Sports, thinks Annika is going to Colonial because it's tough.

"She has picked a golf course, and we're hearing all the time, 'Well, it's a shorter course. You know, it's easier,'" says Feherty. "This golf course isn't easier. This is a golf course that kicks men's' butts every year."

"There's nowhere else for her to go," he says. "If Tiger Woods had a place to play that was more difficult, that was more of a challenge, do you think he wouldn't go there? That's where she has to go to challenge herself further. It's about testing herself."

But Annika's punishing daily workout seems less like testing and more like torture. She's kept to this routine for almost two years, trying to get strong enough to play with the guys.

So far, it's helped her shoot about 20 yards longer than she was able to a few years ago. Right now, her average is about 265-270 yards. According to Sorenstam, Tiger Woods hits it over 300 yards. However, most good male pro players average about 280-285 yards.

"A few more pushups, a few more pull-ups, and I'll get it," she says.

Now, she's asking her trainer to push her even harder, according to her husband, David Esch.

"She kind of said to him, 'I want power. I don't care what I look like,'" says Esch, who notices the biggest change in her upper body.

All this because of her decision to compete against the men.

Some say that Sorenstam did this because she needed the challenge, that she was bored on the LPGA Tour.

"It's tough to get motivated when you've won 13 times," admits Sorenstam. "But now I am so motivated. This is only one tournament, but I've got to take my game to a different level. That's why I'm doing this. I want to see how good I am compared to the best guys in the world. It's just a true test."

This is a test that once would have scared her to death, her husband says. In fact, the world's best female golfer was once so shy, she purposely lost a few junior tournaments to avoid making speeches.

She overcame that huge hurdle by accidentally winning a tournament.

"I had to give a speech, and I realized that it wasn't a big deal," she says. "I survived."

Back on the 18th hole in Florida, with her drive dead center in the fairway, Annika showed us a part of her game that should serve her well at narrow, twisty Colonial: pinpoint accuracy from fairway to green. Her shot practically went right into the hole.

So how are male players reacting?

"They're reacting like males, because this is the playground here," says Feherty, who believes the players who are secretly rooting for her are the ones who have daughters.

"You're talking about male athletes, and we have a playground mentality. You know, the girls are over there, we're over here, and they don't come and play with us. That doesn't happen."

One man Annika has absolutely no chance of beating is Tiger Woods. He won't be playing at the Colonial.

"It will only be great for women's golf if she plays well," says Woods. "I think if she goes out there and puts up two high scores, then I think it's going to be more detrimental than it's going to be any good."

Sorenstam disagrees. "We've gotten so much more attention with this decision," she says. "What do they think we are today?"

But what if this woman is as good?

Pro player Phil Mickelson thinks Sorenstam will finish around 20th place.

So how well will Phil Mickelson do? "I hope 19th or better," he says, laughing. "But I don't know."

How are the guys who place lower than Sorenstam going to feel like?

"I don't know. I'm just glad I'm not playing," says Feherty. "I would be right there on the 18th green to shake her hand and take it like a man. And inwardly, I'd go and have a good cry. I'd watch Oprah. Yeah, I'd learn to knit."

However, he admits that it would be bad news for the male players if a girl beat them in the game.

"They can't let that happen, you know? So it's going to be even tougher for her in that sense."

But there's Brian Kontak, a back-of-the-pack pro player who -- after Annika said she would play the Colonial -- decided that he now wants to enter a major women's tournament.

"He wants to play in the U.S. Women's Open because we're allowing Annika to play in a male event," says Feherty. "What do people shout? 'You're the man?' Yeah, it's a little obvious, isn't it? What an idiot!"

But if Sorenstam is playing in a men's tournament, then why can't Kontak do the same?

"She's not bullying anybody," says Feherty. "You know, she's taking a step up to challenge herself at a higher level. It's the worst aspect of the male psyche that you see right there. Well, good luck."

Almost exactly 30 years ago, Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in the great battle of the sexes. It was an event that fueled the feminist movement and, King says, changed forever the way men think about women.

"I know when I played Bobby, it triggered up so much emotion in people," remembers King. "And that's what's happening with Annika. Men all the time come up to me and say 'you changed my life. I was 12 years old when I watched you play Riggs. I would have never felt the same about my daughter today if I hadn't watched you play Bobby Riggs.'"

In case you've forgotten, Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets.

But how much of Sorenstam is doing can be considered a feminist statement?

"Zero," she says. "That's not why I'm doing this at all. This is a total challenge for me."

"I think Annika's very different from me. I think about social change. I think about helping society," says King, who believes she carried the burden of crossing gender lines in sports. "She isn't going in with any of that baggage. That's not her gig at all. Which is fine, but you know what I think it's about? I don't know if it's conscious or subconscious, but she wants to be recognized, and she wasn't getting it."

But it seems that Sorenstam was also thinking about the flap over the Masters Tournament and its combative chairman, Hootie Johnson when she decided to crash the PGA party.

"You know we live in 2003 now, and this is a step backwards," says Sorenstam. "I'd like to see golf being kind of a role-model sport, where we take it to the next level."

Would the next level mean having women be part of Augusta? Yes, she says. But does she ever think she'll be invited to the Masters Tournament?

"No, I don't think I ever will be," she says.

Will any woman? What about Michelle Wie? Just 13 years old, she's already good enough to have finished in the Top Ten of an LPGA Tournament a couple of weeks ago, playing alongside Sorenstam.

"She could be the one. I mean, first of all, she's only 13, but she's already over six feet tall. And she already hits the ball a mile," says Sorenstam. "She's motivated to play in the PGA Tour when she grows up. So she might be the one that could do it regularly."

But for now, the spotlight is on Annika. We've reached the 18th green and she's trying to read the putt.

This is the danger zone for her. Putting is not the strongest part of her game. She putts and misses. "It didn't break as much as I thought," she says.

"You know, I don't think that Annika can make the cut unless she can raise her game to a level that she hasn't seen yet," says Feherty. "I hope she turns me into an idiot."

"Nothing would make me happier than to say, 'You know, I had no idea you were that good.'"

  • Rebecca Leung

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