Annika Sorenstam has to feel a little bit like Lou Gehrig batting behind Babe Ruth. Even when the Iron Horse had better years than the Babe, he couldn't get out of the shadow of the larger-than-life figure.
That's sort of the situation Sorenstam is in with Tiger Woods. Actually, you couldn't blame the entire LPGA for feeling a tad as though its recent history has been written by Oliver Stone, the cinematic master of the conspiracy theory. Certainly, it seems at times as if the golf gods have colluded to keep the women from getting their day in the sun.
In Sorenstam, the LPGA has a player building a résumé that argues strongly that she is the best ever to play on that tour. But at the same time, Woods is piling up numbers on the PGA Tour that make a similar case. This week, both return to competition after lengthy absences following major champion victories. Somehow the golf world -- no, make that the sports world -- has to find a way to embrace both simultaneously and rejoice in the fact that we are blessed with the presence of two special athletes who are truly once-in-a-lifetime players.
Woods comes back to the fray at the Wachovia Championship after skipping three tournaments and having won three of the eight events in which he has played this year, most recently The Masters. Sorenstam comes back to competition at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill, also after skipping three tournaments (plus two weeks in which the tour did not have events). She has won three in a row this year and five in a row overall, the last being the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year. A victory this week would break the record of victories in five consecutive starts set by Nancy Lopez in 1978. It would also get Sorenstam past the halfway mark to one of golf's seemingly unbreakable records: 11 consecutive victories, by Byron Nelson in 1945.
The achievement by Nelson is the golf equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball and is likely just as unbreakable. It's more probable that Sam Snead's career mark of 88 victories or the 20 major championships won by Jack Nicklaus will be broken than anyone surpassing 11 consecutive victories. Career records often have as much to do with longevity as they do with performance. Single-season accomplishments -- such as the Grand Slam by Bobby Jones, the triple-major triumphs by Ben Hogan and Woods, Nelson's streak, DiMaggio's hitting streak and Ted Williams' .406 batting average -- the last time a major-leaguer hit over .400 -- are measuring sticks of achievement that occur within a fixed time period.
The consecutive-victory streak Sorenstam is pursuing demonstrates as clearly as any of her accomplishments how completely she has separated herself from her competition. She not only has won five in a row but seven of her last nine, and in her last 29 events worldwide, she has won 16 times, finished in the top 10 all but twice and never done worse than tying for 13th. There will be those who will feel that any comparison between Sorenstam's streak and that of Nelson's is ridiculous because the men's tour is better than the women's tour. No argument on the talent comparison between the two tours, but the point is this: All you can compete against is the competition you have. Nelson won 11 in a row during World War II, and some might try to diminish the accomplishment because some top players were in the military service. But that would unfairly devalue a remarkable achievement.
The same can be said for Sorenstam. She is dominating her peers, and it is a peer group that is arguably the deepest and most talented in the history of the LPGA because the athletes are better trained, more fit and come from more parts of the world than at any time. There might be no sport this side of soccer that draws its talent pool from as many different nations as women's golf. Truly, the consecutive-victory accomplishment achieved by Sorenstam deserves to be compared to all those great achievements in the history of the game of golf, not just in the history of the women's game.
Nelson's streak, which started at the Miami Four Ball in March 1945, ran through the Canadian Open in August of that year. Two players have won six in a row on the PGA Tour -- Hogan in 1948 and Woods in a stretch that spanned the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000. As streak machines go, Hogan is the most impressive. He won six in a row once, four in a row once and three in a row an astonishing four times. Nelson's second-best streak was four in a row. Lopez won five consecutive starts in 1978, beginning with the Greater Baltimore Classic in May and running through the Bankers Trust Classic the next month. For Sorenstam, in addition to her five-in-a-row streak, she has won four and three consecutive events once each.
What happens this week at the Michelob Ultra at Kingsmill is well worth watching. If Sorenstam breaks the consecutive-victory record she now shares with Lopez, she will be tied with Hogan and Woods with six successive wins. And while the victory streak is no doubt important to Sorenstam -- part of the competitive fire she shares with Woods is that all tournaments are important to her -- there is a greater goal buried in her heart: the Grand Slam. No golfer has won four professional major championships in the same year. It would, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrate one of Sorenstam's ultimate goals: The ability to peak at the perfect time for the most important events.
It is not Annika Sorenstam's fault that she happened to come along in the Tiger Woods Era, just as it was through no fault of his own that Lou played on the same team and at the same time with the Babe. But how cruel would the irony be if Sorenstam swept the LPGA Grand Slam events ... only to have Woods do the same on the PGA Tour in the same year and upstage her? That's the way Oliver Stone would write the script. It is a mark of the greatness of both Woods and Sorenstam that speculation on what seems impossible -- the Grand Slam -- is well within reason. And perhaps the fact that both return to competition on the same week is an omen that something truly special lies ahead for all golf fans.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.