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ANNIKA'S PLAY OPENS DOORS TO THE FUTURE

Annika Sorenstam has said all along that her appearance in a PGA Tour event came unattached to a social agenda. She wasn't out to prove that female golfers can compete on the same level with men. She wasn't blazing a trail for other women who might someday share her ambition. She merely was curious to see how her game would hold up against the best players in the world, on the toughest course she's ever played competitively, with all the eyes of the sports world fixed upon her. She was doing this to test herself.

The innocence of the task made Sorenstam an endearing figure Thursday as she became the first woman in 58 years to play in a PGA event. The huge crowds to which she's unaccustomed greeted her with hearty, supportive cheers. Playing partner Aaron Barber approached her before the round and offered words of reassurance, reminding her that they were in this circus together. It seemed that most everyone, save Vijay Singh and a few other Tour Neanderthals, genuinely wished her success. Which makes sense. What reason, other than utter insecurity, could there be for rooting her on to failure?

But now, with Sorenstam's first round in the books, it's clear that the social significance of her courageous endeavor looms as immense. Young girls worldwide might no longer be dreaming of playing strictly the LPGA Tour. They could be daring to dream that maybe they can play the PGA Tour. It's a goal that can no longer be dismissed as far-fetched after Sorenstam shot a 1-over-par 71 at The Colonial, a 67 within her reach if only her putting had been on par with the rest of her play.

That Sorenstam has game is inarguable. She's the dominant player on the LPGA circuit. She won 13 tournaments worldwide last season. But she's often faltered in the majors, which raised questions over whether she had the ability to hold herself together under the intense scrutiny that would accompany her appearance in a PGA event.

Sorenstam says she was nervous all day long, right up until holing out for the final time. If so, it rarely showed. She missed one fairway while positioning the great majority of her drives for favorable approach shots. She hit 14 greens in regulation, barely missing three others. She was totally in control from tee to green, accuracy as always being golf's greatest reward. And her average driving distance was, at 269 yards, hardly a huge detriment.

Skeptics are saying the heavy rains that preceded Thursday's play paved the way to her success. That's bunk. Granted, the greens were more receptive to her shots, which generally lack much spin. But on a dry day her drives are traveling farther and she's down a club or two on approaches and it's far easier to put the brakes on a 8-iron than a 6-iron. Her putting is what hurt her, particularly on her final hole, when she made one of her two bogeys to finish over par.

"First day, under these circumstances, it feels better than par for me," she said. "I'm not afraid of the challenge. I'm nervous and I knew I was going to be nervous. But I'm not afraid."

Sorenstam chose her tournament carefully, opting for The Colonial because it grants no favors to big hitters. The course has only two par-5s, holes on which she's at a distinct disadvantage. The distance factor is the reason most would give a woman no chance of surviving week to week on the PGA Tour.

But remember, also, that opportunities for female golfers are far more numerous than 10 years ago and will continue to grow. Hawaii's Michelle Wie, 13, drives the ball 300 yards, already has played some LPGA events and in September will participate in a stop on the men's Nationwide Tour. Is it so hard to envision a female eventually emerging with the talent and strength to compete at the sport's highest level? It shouldn't be. Not any longer. Not after Sorenstam put her reputation on the line and opened the door to the possibility before a Thursday gallery rife with grandmothers, mothers and, most notably, young daughters.

"I hope they feel like that when they grow up that they can play golf, but also follow their dream and follow their hearts," Sorenstam said. "I'm living my dream and that's what it's all about."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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