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Golf - 14. February 2008.

Pettersen Keeps Her Eyes Off The Priz

Tim Maitland in Hawaii


Annika Sorenstam is making an unusually early debut to her season in her clearly-stated goal to reclaim her number one spot. Current incumbent Lorena Ochoa is keeping her tinder dry until the HSBC Women's Champions in two weeks' time having trumpeted her intention to retain number one status for the entirety of her career.

Suzann Pettersen will tee off at the LPGA's season-opening tournament – the SBS Open in Turtle Bay on the North Shore of the main Hawaiian island of Oahu – in the small hours of Friday morning (Singapore time) with far more understated goals.

"Usually the simple mindset is the best," she responds on the subject of the Swedish Hall of Famer's grand target, before outlining her own.

"My focus isn't on numbers, statistics or rankings," explains the Norwegian, who, if Sorenstam's back injury in 2007 can be described as the cat being away, was one of the two mice who really came out to play last year. While Ochoa feasted on the cheese with eight wins, Pettersen grabbed herself a considerable slice of the fromage with five, including her first Major – the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

"I feel like I'm ready to test my game again. I want to get some competitive rounds and build up for the Nabisco (Kraft Nabisco Championship, the year's first major). For me the next two weeks and the HSBC Women's Champions will be a good lead up for what's coming later in the year and that's where I keep my mind."

The 26-year-old mind seems not to have retained too much information of her only other appearance in Singapore – the 2005 Lexus Cup, played, not on the HSBC Women's Champions' Garden Course, but on the Tanah Merah Country Club's other layout (the Tampines Course) – except to say it was "bloody hot!"

Then again Singapore's memory of her might be a bit blurry too. Compared to her sudden transformation into a multiple winner, she was relatively unknown at the time. Surprisingly, she says her sudden rise to stardom has helped her have a more relaxing off-season than normal.

"It was easier. It's usually hard for me to put my golf clubs away for more than a day. With good results you get some calmness – you know what you have done to get there, so you don't worry. You know that you can do it again. You know what was behind it all. I think it was more relaxing. I didn't think about golf at all for four weeks. I tried to switch the brain off from golf and be a normal girl for a couple of weeks. It's nice to do something different at the end of the year; to get a break so you can feel refreshed, keen, re-energised."

Renowned among fellow players as one of the great jokers on the LPGA Tour, but far more reserved away from her peers, Pettersen does briefly give a glimpse of her locker-room persona as she laughingly admits how "brutal" her first week back on the range was.

"The timing was off. It takes a few days to get back in the groove and feel like a golfer again. For a day or two you feel like a hobby golfer. I would never play golf if I was always that bad!" she says smiling.

Apart from that moment of humour, Pettersen is most comfortable when discussing the art of winning. Tellingly, her most spontaneous response comes to being asked what she knows about the subject that she didn't before her victorious parade through last year's season began.

"You don't have to play perfect golf to win," she counters quickly.

"It's a lot about being patient, grinding and being there on the back nine on Sunday… being in the hunt. Give yourself the opportunity week in week out and hope that good things happen."

That certainly was the case in 2007 and Pettersen clearly deserves her place in the top echelon of the elite field of champions destined for Singapore, but whether she has developed the mindset to thrive in the pressure-cooker situations – the quality that defines the truly great champions – is still open to some debate.

Her sudden-death play-off wins at the Michelob Open in May, her breakthrough victory after shooting the only bogey-free round of the final round, and the Longs Drugs Challenge in October, where she defeated Ochoa, sandwiched her first Major. There - at the McDonald's LPGA Championship - she charged through the closing holes to see off Karrie Webb and put to rest the abiding memories of the back-to-back trophies that eluded her earlier in the year:

The Safeway International owed more to the brilliance of Ochoa, who birdied four of the last five holes, but at the Kraft Nabisco she carded bogey-double bogey-bogey from 15 to 17 to gift a win to Morgan Pressel.

Not every one of her 2007 triumphs completely dispelled the doubts about her resilience under the final-round spotlight. Her Hana Bank-Kolon Championship victory in Korea came courtesy of a Sunday cancelled because of high winds buffeting the hills above Ulsan. Her win at the Honda LPGA Thailand, her third that month, was anything but the cakewalk it should have been at the start of play. Leading by seven strokes after three rounds, Pettersen wilted as playing partner Laura Davies blossomed and only sealed the title by holing an eagle putt on 18 after the Englishwoman's miss by millimeters had relieved the pressure fractionally.

How she follows up her annus mirablis will decide whether making that putt when the heat was on is more significant then the struggles she had in getting to that point. Regardless, Pettersen is far calmer in these situations than she would have been 12 months ago.

"I think you learn. I went through a couple of stages where I felt I was close to winning. I kept putting myself in a good position on the Sunday. Eventually I learned how to deal with the pressure, and all of a sudden I pulled off one win and once I pulled off one, the rumble started!" she says.

That rumble was impressive by anyone's standards, and established Pettersen as a proven winner, but it's interesting to note how her attitude differs to that of fellow-Scandinavian Sorenstam who happily admits she craves the adrenaline rush of being in the mix on the final day. The old sporting adage "Keep your eyes on the prize" has no place in Pettersen's lexicon. Her approach is to keep her gaze firmly averted from the trappings that come with victory.

"You'll never win if you think about winning. You have to think of the process that leads to it. That's where the focus needs to be," she explains.

"If two people start the last round all square and the one player is thinking only about holding the trophy and the other one keeps grinding away thinking about what she needs to do to get there, it's an obvious winner. Again… you have to be very present. People must be very fed up with us saying this… take one shot at a time. Literally, that's what it is about. You can't think about a shot that is coming in three holes, you have to deal with the present, right there and right then. And then take whatever comes when it comes."

In all of this it's important not to mistake Pettersen's focus on the here and now as a fear of winning situations. She may not be coming out beating her chest and screaming war cries, but she obviously harbours a ferocious competitive spirit and goals that may be loftier than she's willing to let on.

"I still feel like I'm in a very aggressive position," she says of her outlook for 2008.

"Lorena's far ahead and we need to step up and keep playing good."

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