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Sorenstam Takes Command Early, Wins Third Women’s Open July 2, 2006 | Newport, R.I. By Ken Klavon

(USGA/Steven Gibbons)

In the end, the proverbial favorite won.

It took 90 holes of gritty golf, but Annika Sorenstam prevailed with her third Women’s Open victory Monday at Newport Country Club. What the 37-year-old Pat Hurst could not do in the 18-hole playoff, Sorenstam did. That’s why Sorenstam won, shooting 1-under 70 to Hurst’s 3-over 74.

It was the 10th playoff in Women’s Open history, the last occurring at Pumpkin Ridge in 2003 when Hilary Lunke defeated Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford. Hurst fell to 0-4 in career playoffs, ironically losing to Sorenstam in three of them. Monday marked the most lopsided defeat in a Women’s Open playoff dating to 1956 when Kathy Cornelius beat amateur Barbara McIntire by seven strokes.

The 35-year-old super-Swede won her 10th major overall and first since last year’s LPGA McDonald’s Championship, in the process responding to whispers that she had been in a slump. This marked her second victory of the season. Three top-10 finishes in her last three majors had stoked the flames that she couldn’t seal the deal anymore. Only Patty Berg has won more women’s majors, with 15. Sorenstam’s third Women’s Open victory tied her with three other players for second-most Open titles. Only Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright have more with four.

"I’ve been trying so hard," said Sorenstam, standing on the 18th green after winning. "I think I’ve been talking to myself so many times, if somebody saw me, they might think I’m weird.

"I just kept telling myself, ‘Just play your game; it’s good enough; focus on what you’ve got to do; don’t think too much about the surroundings; focus on what you want to do; here’s your chance.’ And I kept saying that over and over."

Sorenstam went 10 years between Women’s Open wins, the second-longest dearth in the championship’s history. Meg Mallon had gone 13 years in between wins until her 2004 triumph at The Orchards.

Sorenstam made her splash on the professional circuit by marking the 1995 Women’s Open as her first career victory, one of 14 players to make the championship their first win. She then won again in ’96 at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, thinking that the championship would be hers every year. She came close in two championships the past four years.

In 2002 at Prairie Dunes, Juli Inkster erased Sorenstam’s two-stroke lead in the final round with a lights-out 66. Then the next year at Pumpkin Ridge, Sorenstam could have added her name to the playoff mix had she parred the 18th hole. But she instead got in trouble, sending a wayward approach far right and needed relief. She missed a 12-foot par putt that would have created a four-way tie.

"When I came out early and won my first tournament was a U.S. Open and I won back to back, I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ Now it’s been 10 years," said Sorenstam. "It’s been a long wait, a long road, but along the way I’ve learned a lot, and this week obviously means a lot to me, to come back the way that I did. And especially the way the season has been going, a little up and down."

The playoff was needed after the 72nd hole, replete with drama, still ended in a deadlock. Hurst sank a pressure-packed 4-footer before Sorenstam’s 2-foot tap-in forced the extra holes.

The difference between Sunday and Monday seemed to affect Hurst, 37, the most. Hurst, who was attempting to become the second female in history to win the Girls’ Junior, Women’s Amateur and Women’s Open, could not execute solid shots or putts and quickly found herself behind with a bogey. Through the first 12 holes, Hurst had already taken 24 of her 32 putts. By a different token Sorenstam turned in an unswerving performance. It started with fairways, striking 11 of 14 and never missing any on the back side.

"The last 18 wasn’t the finish that I wanted," said Hurst.

Hurst’s day started with a missed green on the 532-yard, par-5 first hole.

"Making a three-putt on the first hole, a bogey, the confidence level went down," said Hurst.

And when Sorenstam did stumble, Hurst couldn’t catch a break. On the par-4 sixth, a hole that Sorenstam couldn’t get up and down, Hurst made a mess of it. She drove into a right fairway bunker, played a short shot but the ball rolled into the left tall grass. She ended up three-putting from 25 feet, yanking the second one that was within 3 feet.

Double bogey and Sorenstam’s lead increased to four.

Three holes later Hurst would again be victimized by the low-lying ninth. She had bogeyed it in the third and fourth rounds, once again finding trouble and another bogey. Sorenstam smacked a 3-footer in for par. As they headed to the 10th tee, Sorenstam had a comfortable five-stroke margin.

"There was never a point where I said, ‘I can’t do this,’" said Hurst.

Hurst continued grinding and settled down with eight straight pars. But she couldn’t convert any birdie chances, missing a downhill 15-footer on the 11th, an 8-footer on the 12th and 6-footer on the 14th.

Sorenstam got as low as 2 under by sinking a putt on the 340-yard par-4 12th, from 10 feet, that brought a small smile. She missed her 14-foot par putt on the next hole, but by that time, it was too late for Hurst to make any sort of last stand. Hurst did stroke in a 40-footer from the fringe on 18 for birdie, her only one of the round, that caused her to raise her arms in celebration.

Moments later, Sorenstam would too, but in blissful triumph. When her 2-foot tap-in fell, she rested her putter behind her neck, closing her eyes as she tilted her head skyward. The mission, 10 years long, had been fulfilled.

"To win the Open," she said beaming, "has been a little ironic."