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Sorenstam wins AP Female Athlete of the Year again
by Associated Press

She won early and often, and often by overwhelming margins. She won on four continents - in Australia, Sweden and Japan and in six of the 50 United States. She won a major, the most money and a remarkable 10 times in just 20 starts worldwide.

Small wonder then, that what was an average year for golfer Annika Sorenstam was more than good enough to earn her recognition as The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for the second year running.

Sorenstam received 40 first-place votes and 263 total points. Diana Taurasi, who led Connecticut to the NCAA women's basketball title and then captured the WNBA's Rookie of the Year award, finished second. She had 15 first-place votes and 154 points, two more than Russian teen tennis sensation Maria Sharapova.

Consistency has been the hallmark of Sorenstam's 11-year career in pro golf. Her performance this season wasn't nearly as eventful as 2003, when Sorenstam won two majors and 11 times on the LPGA Tour, became the first woman since 1945 to play on the PGA Tour, did a star turn on "Oprah" and entered the Hall of Fame. But incredibly, it was every bit as efficient.

Sorenstam began it with a win in the ANZ Ladies Masters on Australia's Gold Coast, making up a four-stroke deficit at the midway point by closing with a pair of scintillating 65s. She ended it by edging Cristie Kerr in a playoff in the ADT Championship, the final tournament on the LPGA calendar, with her only victory that didn't come by multiple shots.

In between, Sorenstam wrote a book, lifted her profile as an endorser and mixed it up with the boys a second time in the Skins Game. She also stayed comfortably atop the world rankings, locked up a fourth consecutive LPGA money title - her seventh in the last 10 years - tied her own scoring average record at 68.7 and led the tour in top-10 finishes, rounds under par and greens in regulation.

"Naturally, I'm pleased with my season in many different ways," Sorenstam said, "and especially because I've played less tournaments and still won so much."

Most important, perhaps, the 34-year-old Swede proved again that she has to be included in any argument about the most dominant golfer - male or female - of this era. Over the last four seasons, Sorenstam has separated herself from her competition even more than either Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh, boosting her total LPGA wins to 56 and climbing within striking distance of the record 88 recorded by Kathy Whitworth in a 22-year career.

"I'm still so far away from it but I've come so far ahead of what I ever thought I would," Sorenstam said earlier this year. "I always said I would continue to play this game while I enjoy it and feel motivated. I just wonder if I can continue on this pace."

But no one should be surprised if she does.

Golfing great Nancy Lopez saw something special in Sorenstam not long after she joined the pro circuit. "There's a calmness about her you don't normally see in young players," Lopez said at the time, and that's still evident watching Sorenstam play now, striding purposefully down the fairway in wraparound sunglasses and formfitting outfits.

But then, as now, the cool, confident exterior masks a competitive desire that burns every bit as brightly as it has in any of the game's greats.

Soon after Australian Karrie Webb knocked Sorenstam off the throne of women's golf at the end of the 2000 season, the Swede rededicated herself to the sport with an intensity few believed she possessed. Sorenstam spent the next six weeks practicing nothing but putting and began a strength-training regimen that has made her the envy of not just her peers, but female athletes of every stripe.

After a 2002 season that ranked as the most successful by any golfer in four decades, the same impulse drove her to accept a sponsor's invitation to play against the men at the Colonial the following year. Sorenstam missed the cut there, but played in front of crowds nearly four times larger than she routinely encounters on the LPGA Tour. She put both her game and her personality under that microscope to learn more about her weaknesses than strengths, and those lessons have been paying dividends ever since.

Sorenstam insists winning is not as easy as she makes it look. But whenever she gets in a tight spot now, Sorenstam draws on the memories of playing in front of galleries lined eight deep behind the ropes, remembering how it felt to stand in the fairway and feel like there wasn't enough oxygen to go around. Then she draws the club back calmly and pulls off the shot she needs.

"I'm nervous," she explained in August of 2003, right after winning the British Open to complete her career Grand Slam, "but I love it at the same time."

Those same emotions mixed once again coming down the stretch of this year's ADT Championship, where Sorenstam missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to win the tournament outright, then had to cobble together a bogey on the first extra hole for the victory. She didn't win any style points, but the display of grit was as good a way as any to wrap up another spectacular season.

"You're a champion whether you make a bogey or a birdie," Sorenstam said. "That's the way I look at it."

And she's not the only one.


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