Transformed Annika has score to settle in Oregon

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. -- There used to be times when Annika Sorenstam looked
almost defenseless. She didn't always have those biceps, remember. Nor
was there that pleasantly confident hop in her step regardless of her

In fact, here at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland six years ago,
Sorenstam appeared ready to be carried off on her shield at the U.S.
Women's Open. The golf course beat her. Pummeled her, actually.

Sorenstam, who loves crunching numbers, does not forget a debt. She's
ready for payback. She'd love for this week to be the ''Smashing Pumpkin
Ridge'' tour, to get back the trophy that means the most to her and
every other female golfer.

Sorenstam first wanted more to be a tennis player, like a million
other little Bjorn Borgs in Sweden. She dreamed about winning the U.S.
Open by whipping forehands down the line and cross-court at
Flushing Meadow.

But she got sick of tennis; burned out by age 16, she said. Golf took
over, and it was still about the U.S. Open. Just a different sport.

''I've always felt this is the biggest championship,'' she said
Tuesday at the Open. ''We always play the toughest golf course. And as a
kid, I would practice-putt at home, and I would say, 'This is to win the
U.S. Open.' ''

Someone teasingly asked if she ever said, ''This is to win the Du Maurier,'' the former LPGA major that seemed only important to Canadians. No,
Sorenstam laughed, never that one. And not the Dinah (now the Nabisco
Championship), nor the LPGA Championship, nor the British Open, which
two years ago took the defunct Du Maurier's place as a major.

The British does mean a great deal to
Sorenstam. It's No. 2 now for her. But this championship always will be
No. 1, and it's been a while since Sorenstam's won it.

It was at the U.S. Open in 1995 that she had her pro breakthrough,
winning by one shot over Meg Mallon at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.
Sorenstam was 24 then. As she watched Mallon miss the putt on 18 that
would have tied it, Sorenstam was all big-blue eyes and little-girl

It was her first title on the LPGA Tour.

''Your first victory is probably the one you remember most,'' she
said. ''In my particular case, it turned out to be the biggest. So a lot
of things changed at that time. First of all, I got a lot of confidence
and I trusted myself. And that's what golf's all about.''

The next year, at Pine Needles in North Carolina, Sorenstam took the
U.S. Open again. This one was a runaway, as she won by 6 shots.

''It just kind of came easy for two years. And I said, 'Oh, I can do
this,''' Sorenstam said. ''And then when it was time for a major, I
think I put a lot of pressure on myself knowing that I can win. I was
thinking about Sunday when it was Thursday.''

So on Thursday, July 10, 1997, she stepped to the first tee at Pumpkin
Ridge, thinking ''Sunday'' and ''threepeat'' and ''OK, stop thinking
Sunday and threepeat!''

By the time she made the turn, it was a disaster. She had
triple-bogeyed No. 9 to go to 5-over. The ''highlight'' shot that would
be played again and again on television that night was her almost
whiffing -- the ball did move 3 inches -- out of the tall grass near the
ninth green.

Sorenstam staggered to a 77, and afterward said of the Nefarious No.
9, ''I was a little confused, I was upset. It was like, 'Where am I?
What am I doing? How do I get out of this? Take me away from here.'''

So that was the end of the threepeat. She shot a 73 the next day,
missed the cut and said she had no idea what to do on the weekend. And
while Sorenstam doesn't really look back on that tournament as a
particular landmark, those chronicling her career can.

She remained a very successful player -- but didn't win another major
until 2001. That came in the Nabisco Championship, and it was really the
start of the new Sorenstam era. Since January 2001, she's won 22 of her
45 LPGA titles and more than $6 million. That's really big money when
you're not on the Tiger Tour.

And, of course, Sorenstam even took her shot at the Tiger Tour, even
though Mr. Woods wasn't there. Sorenstam's 71-74 at the Bank of America
Colonial in May wasn't good enough to make the cut, but it elevated her
public profile substantially.

That wasn't the stated goal, although it was a nice by-product.
Sorenstam now gets recognized when she's at the grocery store, when she
goes out to eat. She's OK with that, which certainly wasn't always the
case for the once very-shy Swede.

But the biggest benefit of the Colonial is that it made her all the
stronger for facing her biggest tests on the LPGA Tour. That four-year
gap in major victories greatly bothered Sorenstam, and her performance
in majors was a blot on an otherwise terrific Hall of Fame resume.

Even last year, when she had 11 tour wins and gave a run at Mickey
Wright's season record of 13, Sorenstam was disappointed at the majors.
She repeated as winner at the Nabisco, but was third at the LPGA -- done
in by a second-round 76 -- and was second at the U.S. Open -- done in by
Juli Inkster's hot final-round putting.

Then Sorenstam prepared intensely for the British Open, yet missed the
cut for the only time all year.

All of that is what some of the critics just didn't get about the
Colonial appearance. Sorenstam wasn't trying to see how hard she could
push the male pros, but how far she could push herself.

''The pressure that I felt on that tee, the 10th, which was my first
that day, was incredible,'' Sorenstam said of the Colonial. ''How I was
able to take the club back, I don't know.''

Yet, when it was over, she had the whole experience in her mind,
freeze-framed so she can go back to it when she needs to.

The first test came two weeks later at the LPGA Championship, which
she had not won in eight previous tries. Grace Park came at her like a
Formula One car on the last day, but Sorenstam didn't get passed this
time. She won in a playoff for her fifth major title.

Now, a month later, she's back at Pumpkin Ridge. She says that she was
too young in her career to handle the pressure of the threepeat in '97.
So much is different: the extra 30 yards she can get on her drives
because of her fitness/strength training, the unwavering
self-confidence, the understanding of just how difficult it actually was
to win the Open the two times she did it.

Still, the thought that surfaced first when she got here was ...

''Well, I remember the triple on No. 9, which is not the memory you
want to have,'' she said, smiling. ''You're supposed to have positive
thoughts. But that hole has been haunting me for a while. So my goal is
to improve on that hole, for sure.''

It could be that No. 9 doesn't really have a chance against Sorenstam
this time. Because she has another realization about '97. She was very
good then; everybody thought so. But nobody knew that the player she is
now would leave that one in the dust.

''I've got to admit,'' she said, ''that I think I've improved much
more than I really expected.''

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.