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Published: Tuesday, 7/4/2006

Competitive Farr Classic field even better with Annika, Inkster

A year ago, the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic was abuzz with the pro-am pairing of Big Ben and Natalie Gulbis.

Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' hotshot quarterback, and Gulbis, the LPGA Tour's glamour girl, were an item.

But that cutesy celebrity romance, which has since ended, was better suited for the society page than the sports section. This year, the focus at the Farr will revolve around a true golf story.

Annika Sorenstam, the world's No. 1-ranked women's player and winner of yesterday's U.S. Open, is returning to Highland Meadows after a five-year absence.

Welcome back, Annika. We missed you.

The last time Sorenstam dropped by the Sylvania course in July, 2001, she was the defending champion, was four months removed from shooting an LPGA-record 59, had 28 wins, and was married.

In the five years since, Soren-

stam has won 40 times, including her 10th career major yesterday, has divorced her husband, and has become the dominant force on the LPGA Tour.

Sorenstam is the greatest women's golfer ever.

"We're really excited about Annika coming," Jim Murray, general chairman of the Farr, said yesterday. "I think the Toledo gallery is going to have a ball watching her play. And now that she's won the U.S. Women's Open, it's even more exciting. We're going to have a great tournament."

Sorenstam's absence from the Farr, as well as that of Juli Inkster, who will play for the first time since 1998, has definitely watered down the product.

But two of the last four winners - Se Ri Pak (2003, her fourth win in six years) and Meg Mallon (2004) - have Hall of Fame credentials, just like

Sorenstam and Inkster.

Tournament chairman Judd Silverman didn't exactly have to twist the arms of Sorenstam and Inkster to get them to play. Their Farr returns were orchestrated by a four-year-old LPGA rule that requires the top 90 players to compete in each tournament once every four years.

Next week will mark Sorenstam's fifth appearance in the event at the Meadows. She won it in 2000, beating Rachel (Teske) Hetherington with a birdie on the second playoff hole to claim the $150,000 first-place check.

Sorenstam missed the cut at the Farr in 1994, a rarity indeed, tied for 20th in 1995, and for 47th in 2001.

Inkster, winner of 31 LPGA tournaments, including seven majors, has played in the Farr eight times, with three top-10 finishes. Her best showing was a tie for seventh in 1998.

Sorenstam, 35, captured the MasterCard Classic in mid-March. She snapped a four-month winless stretch with her third U.S Open title and 68th career win yesterday. She has earned more than $20 million on the LPGA Tour.

Inkster, 46, ended a three-year drought by winning the Safeway International in mid-March, pushing her past the $10-million mark. Inkster has been at it so long, her daughter, Hayley (16), is as old as teen phenom Michelle Wie.

"Next week is a big week for Toledo," Murray said. "The Triple-A All-Star game will get national television exposure and then our tournament will be on for three days. I think all the attention will make Toledo shine."

Sorenstam and Inkster may not be as popular here as the twosome of Big Ben and Natalie, but their mere presence and 99 combined victories will make the Farr a much more competitive tournament.



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