Tiger and Annika learn from each other

PINEHURST, N.C. -- It's all going to play out over the next 10 days. By the end of June we'll know if Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam have won the men's and women's U.S. Opens, and then, let the summer of 2005 begin. The Tiger-Annika Summer, where the two best players in their respective games feed off each other in their quests for the Grand Slam.

Sorenstam went 1 up with Woods after winning the LPGA Championship last week in Maryland. They both have nine career majors, and Sorenstam has gone 2-for-2 this year while Woods is coming off a Masters victory and is in contention in the U.S. Open.

"9-9," was the text message sent by Sorenstam to Woods after she beat Michelle Wie at Bulle Rock by three strokes. Woods' response? It was unprintable, according to a mutual friend.

The point is they like to needle each other, which is the best indication that they really like each other. Just because they share the same business manager (Mark Steinberg of IMG), this is not some manufactured bond. This is a relationship borne out of mutual respect and galvanized by the friendship Sorenstam shares with Woods' Swedish wife, Elin.

"I gave her a bunch of crap for a while because she hadn't won as many majors as I have, as well as Player of the Years and all that kind of stuff," Woods said before the Open. "Eventually she just kind of surpassed me in tournament victories. She's got me by, what, 20? I always say, 'You're a little bit older than I am, so give me time.' "

It's not Woods vs. Sorenstam as much as it is Woods and Sorenstam. Or more appropriately, Sorenstam and Woods. They are together in this one, two athletes who seem locked up in friendship as well as in destiny.

Right now, Sorenstam's chances at the Grand Slam are better than Woods'. She is the dominant figure in her game, playing the way Tiger did in 2002. If she can get past Cherry Hills next week, she may win the Women's British Open by 10 strokes. It's the U.S. Open that has perplexed her since going back-to-back in 1995-1996. She's either beaten herself, as was the case two years ago at Pumpkin Ridge, or has been beaten on Sunday with hot rounds by others -- Juli Inkster's 66 at Prairie Dunes in 2002 and Meg Mallon's 65 last year at the Orchards. Woods is still trying to figure out his new swing, yet he's got three wins, including a major, in 2005.

They first met at the Battle of the Bridges in 2001. Annika was paired with Tiger while David Duval was partners with Karrie Webb. This was pre-Colonial for Annika, and she was so hyped up under the lights in Southern California that the adrenaline -- plus the back tees -- exposed some of her weaknesses. She learned from that and started hitting the gym. Two years later she was on the tee in Fort Worth, shooting 71-74. Since then she has won 18 of 37 starts on the LPGA Tour.

In Orlando, Tiger lives at Isleworth, and Annika across town at Lake Nona. It's not like they've got a home-and-home series, but during one of their practice sessions last fall Tiger taught Annika a few shots with his 60-degree lob wedge. Now she carries a Tiger Woods signature sand wedge, the only Nike club in a bagful of Callaway.

There is a belief that Annika is getting more out of this than Tiger, but maybe Tiger could learn something from her, too. Annika has not changed swings since she was 14. Tiger is going through his fourth alteration since the early 1990s. Annika hits fairways and plays with the precision of Jack Nicklaus. Tiger is chasing Nicklaus from the woods.

"I wish I could hit it that straight, man," said Woods when asked if he emulated Sorenstam.

Competitively, they both share a desire to stick it to their opponents, and if anybody can outwork Woods, it's Sorenstam. Even with those big guns he's got for arms, Tiger doesn't want to get into a pull-up contest with her.

"I don't know if I can work harder than I do," Woods said.

Sorenstam spent the early part of this week playing Pine Valley, where she shot even-par 70 from the back tees, and Merion. One of her playing partners said, "It was the most comfortable I've ever seen anyone at Pine Valley." She returned to Florida and will spend the weekend at her home in Lake Tahoe, getting used to the altitude change that she'll face at mile-high Cherry Hills. She'll also be watching the men's Open on TV, pulling for her buddy.

"Yeah, we have a great friendship and one I certainly treasure, because to see what she's doing out there, it's a lot of fun to watch because it's precise golf," Woods said. "Her focus, her determination, her preparation over the winter months -- people don't realize how hard she works. ... She didn't get to this level by just hoping she could play well. She went out and worked and took it to another level. It's been great fun to be a spectator of that and to be able to watch it."

You can bet what the text message will read if Tiger wins the Open:

"10-9. Play hard."

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