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How will Annika Sorenstam perform?

By STEVE SAILER

LOS ANGELES, May 21 (UPI) -- Is there any unbiased way to predict how well the top female golfer Annika Sorenstam should do when she tees it up Thursday with the men at the Bank of America Colonial tournament in this century's first Battle of the Sexes?

Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out to be quite feasible to use statistics to make an objective forecast.

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Opinions differ wildly. Last year's number two money winner Phil Mickelson predicted that Sorenstam would finish 20th out of a field of 114. Sorenstam herself said she was hoping to shoot "around par," which is 70 on the famed

7,080-yard Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Last year, even par for all four rounds (a total of 280) would have tied her with veteran Corey Pavin and four other men in 28th place.

In contrast, others have been less optimistic in assessing the Swedish superstar's chances. Many don't expect her to make the cut and thus collect a paycheck. (Only the 72 or so lowest scorers after two rounds are allowed to play the weekend, and thus get paid). The Palms Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas has set her "over-under" at 76.5, meaning that they expect half the wagering public to bet that she'll average 77 strokes or worse per round and half 76 or better.

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Two weeks ago, Colonial's defending champion Nick Price said that Sorenstam's playing on a sponsor's invitation "reeks of publicity." And the number three money winner in 2002, Vijay Singh, who is from the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific, was politically incorrect enough to state out loud what many male tour pros probably feel: she "didn't belong."

Although the two men were nationally denounced for male chauvinist insensitivity, they both responded to the controversy with the remarkable ability to focus that distinguishes champion golfers. Singh won last week's

EDS Byron Nelson Championship and Price finished second. Singh then announced that he was withdrawing from this week's Colonial.

So, what are Vijay and Co. so upset about? I'll venture a guess. Tour pros get plenty of respect from other male professional athletes (the majority of whom play golf during their off-seasons and hold the PGA pros in awe).

Billionaire businessmen idolize them as well. But the non-golfing public views golfers as not as masculine as other jocks. And that rankles.

The excitement over Sorenstam's invitation probably strikes a lot of male golf pros as an insult to their manhood. After all, nobody would expect Lisa Leslie of the WNBA try to guard Shaquille O'Neal on the basketball court, but lots of people assume a woman could hold her own against the best men in the world on the golf course.

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Veteran sportswriter Tom Boswell claimed in the Washington Post on Tuesday that, "If Sorenstam played the PGA Tour full time, she'd probably crack the top 100, make the cut about half the time and, perhaps a couple of times in her career, win a regular weekly Tour event."

While Sorenstam should be able to beat the over-under line of 153 for 36 holes, Boswell is significantly underestimating how much harder the courses are on the PGA tour than on the LPGA tour. Annually, the men play such famously difficult courses as Pebble Beach, TPC Stadium, Augusta National, Muirfield Village, and Colonial, where the late Ben Hogan won five times. The women only visit top courses for their U.S. and British Opens.

The United States Golf Association objectively measures every golf course's difficulty. It issues a "course rating" that is an estimate of what a male "scratch" golfer would shoot. (A scratch player is defined is someone good enough to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Championship.) The Tour pros are several strokes per round better than scratch.

We can use the course ratings to compare Sorenstam to the short-hitting Pavin. He was once a near-superstar, winning Colonial twice, and defeating Greg Norman to take the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He hasn't won since the 1996 Colonial, though, and at age 43, however, Pavin is well past his prime. Yet, he continues to earn a pleasant living grinding it out on the Tour. So far this year, he has raked in $227,000 to rank 110th on the PGA money list.

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Pavin is listed at 5'-9" and 155 pounds. The 32-year-old Sorenstam is 5'-6". She used to be listed at 130 pounds, but has clearly added a lot of muscle mass over the last two years. Now, she has that distinctive characteristic of a bodybuilder: her forearms no longer hang down along her sides because her upper arms are so muscular. Think of how Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey and Kevin Nelon held their arms away from their sides while playing Hans and Franz, their Schwarzenegger-type "Ve vill pump you up!" muscle heads. (No doubt some male pros think she's been augmenting her weightlifting with steroids or human growth hormone, but there's no specific evidence for that.)

Sorenstam has added well over 20 yards to her average driving distance since 2000. She now averages 275 yards off the tee (2nd on the LPGA tour this season) compared to 267 for Pavin (187th on the PGA). Sorenstam has averaged 69.2 strokes per round this year, while Pavin has been two strokes worse at 71.2.

The courses Pavin has played this year, however, are rated about four strokes more difficult than the courses Sorenstam has played (if played at the same distances). So, Pavin would be two strokes better per round.

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Adjusted for course difficulty, Sorenstam would be averaging about 73.2 strokes per round, which would leave her tied with 49-year-old Craig Stadler for 183rd out of the 185 players listed in the PGA statistics. (Interestingly, she would be a stroke per round better than David Duval, who was the number one player in the world as recently as 1999, but who is having a horrible season.)

A lot of Pavin's superiority over Sorenstam comes from his short game. That's not unique to him. Surprisingly, the men are universally considered to have on average a more fastidious touch around the greens than the women.

In reality, Sorenstam would probably do even worse than two strokes more than Pavin because the USGA ratings don't take into account how much more rigorously the courses are set-up for PGA tournaments. When the men come to town, club members see it as a challenge to their collective manhoods to keep the PGA pros from shooting low scores on their beloved home courses. So, they grow their roughs longer and mow their greens shorter. In contrast, the LPGA prefers course set-ups that will surrender low scores to the women.

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So, I predict that if Sorenstam plays this week the way she's played in the rest of 2003, she'll miss the cut by four strokes.

On the other hand, Sorenstam can definitely shoot lower than she has so far this year, during which she's only won once in five starts. Last year she won eleven times.

Overall, I doubt that Sorenstam could make a living playing on the men's tour. She'd miss too many cuts to cover her travel expenses.

Still, if she doesn't choke and just plays her average game, she's likely to beat more than a few men this week. Almost all of them would do better than her in the long run, but any golfer's performance in any single tournament is highly erratic. Even the pros have bad weeks. If Sorenstam misses the cut by four strokes, for example, she's going beat about 20 men.

And, that, I suspect, is what all the resentment of Sorenstam is about. Men aren't supposed to admit it these days, but they still hate even the thought of losing to a woman.

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