Former UA golfer wins 2 LPGA awards

The Associated Press

NEW YORK Ÿ Not since the glory days of Nancy Lopez has the LPGA had the kind of headline-grabbing player who could push women's golf from the bottom of the sports page to the top. Annika Sorenstam could take care of that.

Sorenstam, barely 25, received the Rolex Player of the Year award and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average on Monday, making her the only player beside Lopez to take both of those honors the year after being Rookie of the Year.

''I need to go home and let this sink in and set new goals,'' an exhausted Sorenstam said after flying from Australia, where she won that country's Masters just a day earlier, finishing a truly astounding year.

Sorenstam, a former UA golfer, won three times on the LPGA Tour in 1995 and three times overseas, becoming the first woman to lead the U.S. and European tours in money earnings in the same year.

''The expectations are high,'' she said as she sat near her fiancĒ, David Esch, on a step in a midtown hotel banquet room, waiting for the award luncheon to begin.

''It's going to be tough to beat. It's an honor just to be mentioned with her,'' Sorenstam said of Lopez.

What Lopez did for women's golf was immeasurable. In 1978, her rookie year, Lopez won nine tournaments, including a record five in a row. She followed with eight more victories in 1979 and when she took five titles in 1985, Lopez had completed an astounding eight-year run in which she won 34 times.

At that time it took 35 victories, which Lopez got in 1987, to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame. Now it takes 30.

Asked if that was one of her goals Sorenstam said, ''Gee, I'd have to have a year like this for 10 years,'' smiling a bewildered half-smile at the thought of the idea.

Sorenstam is from Sweden, where a youth program has overcome short summers to turn out world-class golfers in a country more associated with skiing and hockey.

''My parents started me playing when I was 12,'' the Stockholm native said. ''I was a 63 handicap. Then I got into the Swedish Federation Youth Program and by the time I was 16 I was a 10 handicap.''

Her big break came when she was sent by the federation to play in a tournament in Japan. There she met some players from the University of Arizona, where she ended up going to school for two years.

''I credit a lot of my success to going to college,'' Sorenstam said. ''In Sweden I couldn't play in the winter. The courses were better in Arizona. The competition was better. I never really thought about being a professional until I won the NCAAs in 1991.''

Sorenstam, whose victories this year included the U.S. Open and earned $666,533 in the U.S. and $205,912 in Europe, is the kind of hard worker who should be able to build on her success.

''I study my game,'' she said. ''I go over the stats. I look at greens hit and putts and sand saves and I find a weakness in my game and I work on it.''

This should all be good news for Jim Ritts, who will replace Charlie Mechem as LPGA commissioner at the turn of the year. It could be that in Sorenstam the youthful, energetic Ritts has just the type of star to build his sport around.

Others receiving LPGA awards included Pat Hurst, who won the Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. Hurst, 26, had three top-10 finishes in 1995 and earned $125,620.

The Heather Farr Player Award, named for the former LPGA player who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 at the age of 24 and died in 1993, went to Shelley Hamlin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991.

Hamlin, 46, hadn't won a tournament since 1978 but came back from a modified radical mastectomy to win once in 1992 and again in 1993. The award goes to the player who has best shown dedication and passion for the game.

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