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Sorenstam faces her stiffest challenge

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Annika Sorenstam is ranked No. 2 behind Lorena Ochoa.

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. (AP) — The gradual slide from the top of women's golf began at the major championship that brought Annika Sorenstam so much satisfaction.

She salvaged her worst season of this decade last year at the U.S. Women's Open, a week where everything went right. The thick fog that wiped out the first round at Newport Country Club gave her an extra day to refine her swing. Her stamina carried her through 36 holes on Sunday, and a four-shot victory in the 18-hole playoff.

That also was when she first felt slight soreness in her neck, which was nothing more than a nuisance at the time. It turned into much more than that, only nine months later did Sorenstam realize she had a bulging disk in her back and a ruptured disk in her neck, knocking her out of competition for two months.

"It's funny how things come together one way or another," Sorenstam said Tuesday.

What she craves now is for everything to fall back into place. The U.S. Women's Open is her third tournament back after recovering from her injuries, and already the world she once ruled has changed so much.

Lorena Ochoa is the No. 1 player in women's golf, expanding her lead in the ranking by winning last week in a playoff. Morgan Pressel became the youngest major champion in LPGA history when the 18-year-old captured the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The other major went to Suzann Pettersen, a dynamic Norwegian and disciple of the "Vision 54" concept under which Sorenstam matured into a star.

There are two dozen teenagers at Pine Needles, and that doesn't included 12-year-old Alexis Thompson, the youngest qualifier ever.

For Sorenstam, the challenge has rarely been this severe — and just from the competition.

"My challenges are that I have not been 100 percent for a while, and it's been tough to get motivated," she said. "I'm looking forward to getting my motivation back. I'm excited to be 100 percent again, so I can be up there and get back to it. It just hasn't been that way the last few months, and maybe part of last year."

She doesn't look at Ochoa, still missing a major to validate her role as No. 1, rather to herself. There is a part of Sorenstam that believes she decides who's the best, and it starts with her getting healthy.

It helped slightly that her last form of competition, though unofficial, came 10 days ago when she beat Ochoa on the fourth extra hole to win a skins game exhibition.

But the U.S. Women's Open is where history means more than money. Sorenstam has a chance this week to join Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls as the only four-time winners of the most prestigious event in women's golf.

And it helps being back at Pine Needles.

This is the course where Sorenstam won her second U.S. Women's Open title in 1996 with a display of precision that defines her career. She missed only five fairways over four rounds, winning by five shots.

The course has been lengthened since 2001, when Karrie Webb won by eight shots at the peak of her rivalry with Sorenstam. It now measures 6,664 yards as a par 71, the longest championship course at sea level. Sorenstam worked on her chipping and putting Monday, and her practice round Tuesday was interrupted by thunderstorms.

But the place brings back good memories, good vibes.

"I have confidence just being inside the ropes," she said. "That's where I like to be, that's where I think I belong. I have confidence to go ahead and play again, just knowing that I'm healthy, and knowing that my game is coming around. It's great to be the defending champion. This tournament has always meant the most to me. This is the event that I always get geared up for."

Sorenstam said she has been without pain for the last several weeks, although she still struggles to trust herself enough to attack every shot. She has increased her practice sessions, now hitting as many balls as she needs.

"If I can hit it where my caddie tells me, I'm not so worried," she said.

This is the longest Sorenstam has gone without a victory to start the season, although she missed a big chunk of it with the injury. And while the focus ranges from Ochoa going after her first major to Thompson being the youngest qualifier to 17-year-old Michelle Wie trying to break par for the first time in nearly a year, Sorenstam is lurking.

"You can never count Annika out," Pressel said. "She's an amazing competitor. She practices really hard and she wants to be out here, and she wants to be playing well. I'm not sure the status of her injury and how she's feeling, but I'm sure she'll have a good showing."

Sorenstam has 10 majors, still five from the record held by Patty Berg. She also is stuck on 69 tour victories, and it looks unlikely she can reach the 88 won by Kathy Whitworth.

"With the competition so tough and me starting to think about other things, I'm not sure that will happen," Sorenstam said. "Right now, I'm just happy to be back here. I'm focusing on this week and we'll see how it goes."

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