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LPGA playoff may not be Annika's bag



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ORLANDO, Fla. - Has any prominent tour player ever lost her lunch on national TV, frozen up over a clutch putt to the point of paralysis or been reduced to a slobbering wreck by sheer pressure?

Considering the way the LPGA's season finale for 2006 is designed, paramedics had best be around with a defibrillator in hand at Trump International in West Palm Beach, where a knee-knocking putt likely shall cement a record-breaking, career-defining $1 million prize.

Tour regular Marisa Baena, who has $1.52 million in career earnings, called the possibility of winning the lucrative title a "life-changing" experience, but only if it isn't life-ending in the process. Twelve months hence, that's the way the LPGA Playoffs at the ADT Championship will play out - and players surely are talking. And quaking. And questioning.

They know it'll be tough on their tickers, but is it what's best for the tour? It hasn't been said often of the LPGA's traditionally modest purses, but this might be too much of a good thing.

Most of the second-guessing regarding the new plan, which was unveiled last week, deals with the inequity between first and second place and its unintended impact elsewhere. The ADT runner-up gets a more modest $100,000, which means the winner will make a huge leap up the season money list with what amounts to one great round, possibly unseating a player who was far more steady over the entire year.

Yeah, you know who we mean.

Annika Sorenstam, the only LPGA player ever to earn $2 million over an entire season, has sponsor bonuses riding on whether she wins the money title. The most consistent player in decades - she has 35 victories over the past four seasons of LPGA play alone - she doesn't love the idea of being passed in earnings by a player who has a couple of hot days in mid-November. She believes only half the prize should count as official money, with the rest awarded as unofficial bonus earnings.

"I mean, obviously I do have a little concern about that," Sorenstam said. "It's fun that we are trying something new, but one thing I have voiced several times is that the first prize is too much money. To me, personally, the money list means a lot. The fans look at the money list, and that's kind of our (world) ranking."

There are other oddities with the playoff plan, too, as at the ADT last week. The limited field of 32, which will be selected based on points accrued throughout the 2006 season, will be halved after 36 holes. After 54 holes, the field will be cut to an elite eight, with the scores from the first three days heaved out the window.

The last day, everybody starts all square, which means that if a player shot three 65s to start the week and whips the field by 10 strokes, it largely goes for naught. It's the auto-racing equivalent of a caution-flag restart, except that all the drivers come out of the pits side by side in the front row.

Sorenstam shot 69 in the final round last weekend to win in the final year of the ADT's traditional 72-hole format, but of the players in the top eight after Saturday, two players closed with 68s, meaning she would not have won the top prize. Moreover, Baena was tied for 20th after 36 holes but rallied in the third round and played in the final group alongside Sorenstam on Sunday. She wouldn't have played at all on the weekend under the 2006 plan.

But the mostly unheralded Baena wasn't about to split hairs about such a grandiose pot of gold.

"That's awesome," she gushed. "That is a life-changing experience for anyone who is playing good. Maybe for Annika, it isn't, but for a lot of us, I'm telling you, winning a million dollars means a lot."

Seven figures still gets Sorenstam's attention. A few years ago, she had a putt for $340,000 at the Skins Game and remembers her arms went numb.

"Talk about nerves," Sorenstam said. "It was a 6-footer, and I read it from every angle. By the time I got to the ball, I had no feel. I probably rammed it 10 feet by.

"It's just amazing how money does play a role. You are going to stand there (next year) with a 3-footer and a difference of $900,000. I would like to see if I can handle it."

With major year-ending overhauls for the LPGA and PGA circuits in 2006 and 2007, respectively, the women get first crack at making a big-money splash next November. "We will find out how it works, how fair it is, how true it is," Sorenstam said. "I'm sure a lot of people have their eyes on it, trying to figure out if it is a great idea or not."

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(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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