Co-ed fun on the links

PALM BEACH, Fla. – As Miss Manners’ decorum would dictate, the ladies’ team of Annika Sorenstam and Morgan Pressel was accorded the privilege of going first at the 20th anniversary ADT Skills Challenge held Monday at The Breakers.

The Challenge, a PGA-sanctioned, made-for-TV event that will air Saturday, Dec. 24, and Sunday, Dec. 25, on NBC, pitted four teams against each other. Zach Johnson and Jerry Kelly won the event to share $286,000; 2010 champions Mark O’Meara and Nick Price came in second, taking $185,000; Nick Faldo and Rocco Mediate were third, winning $168,000; and Sorenstam and Pressel – the first women’s team to compete in the event – came in fourth to share $161,000.

Sorenstam, who has won a record 90 career international titles and over $22 million in prize money, was making her first professional competition appearance since playing in the 2008 ADT Championships. She stepped away from the game to shift her interests to business and, more importantly, to becoming a mom. Her daughter, Ava, 2, and son, William, who was born prematurely in March, made the Palm Beach scene and were being babysat by Sorenstam’s parents in the gallery.

“I’m very competitive so it’s great to come out in this atmosphere again,” Sorenstam said. “We’re going to be more up close and personal with the players, which I love.”

The long drive, a skill where all agreed the women’s team was least likely to succeed, was the initial test for the champions on hand. Sorenstam approached the tee to take the first swing of the day.

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Like all the competitors, Sorenstam would have three chances to drive the ball as far as the eye could just about see, or so she hoped. Her first two shots gone, she asked around for how far she went and winced when hearing the yardage called out: “202.”

“When you try to hit it too hard that’s what happens,” quipped Price, a former British Open and PGA Championship winner. Everyone, including Sorenstam, chuckled.

And so the good-natured ribbing among the golfers, which was always bound to be a part of the day’s fun, began.

“They’ll be a bit of nudging and digging going on, but I don’t think there’s going to be any trash talk,” Price predicted just before the start. So it came as no surprise that he dished out the first of the many wisecracks to be heard.

For her part, Sorenstam acknowledged her skills on the links are naturally more proficient than her taunting talent. But she mischievously added, “It’s not necessarily my strong suit, you know, but I might give them a hard time and see how it goes.”

Pressel, who at one point jokingly told Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, “to go over there and chunk your shot,” obviously enjoyed the banter.

“I just love the camaraderie,” she said. “They wanted us all to give each other a lot of crap and heckle back and forth. It’s a lot of fun. You have to give some and take some.”

Beyond the good times – the clever verbal jibes and jabs – there were some serious dollars at stake to the tune of $800,000. That fact didn’t escape the golfers, who knew when it was time to get down to business.

The teams were tested in six mainstay skills: long drive, mid-iron, bunker shot, chip shot, trouble shot and short iron. From there they moved on to play a one-hole reverse scramble. With the teams ranked after the six skills, No. 1 (Faldo and Mediate) played No. 4 (O’Meara and Price), while No. 2 (Sorenstam and Pressel) and No. 3 (Johnson and Kelly) squared off against each other. The two winning teams out of that scenario went on to the final reverse scramble of the day.

One thing was very clear from the outset. There were the lighthearted moments, but none of the men was making the mistake of taking Sorenstam and Pressel lightly.

“Don’t ever underestimate the women,” tipped O’Meara, a former British Open and Masters champion. “I played with Annika in the Skins Game years ago, and it was Fred Couples, myself, Phil Mickelson and Annika, and she won a lot more skins than I won. I didn’t get any so she clipped me there.”

“It’s not a battle of the sexes, it’s a battle of golfers,” said Price, cautioning this was no gimmicky stunt event. “We know Annika and Morgan and how well they can play, so no one is going to feel sorry for them out there. That’s the great thing about golf; everyone can play with each other.”

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And they were right to consider Sorenstam and Pressel within their own league.

The two women performed to a high standard that showcased they belonged in the field. If the unique – not to mention somewhat hard to explain – reverse scramble hadn’t basically wiped out what happened earlier in the day, the women would’ve likely finished closer to the top.

Pressel won the bunker shot in a playoff with Price after they both initially holed out. Pressel then went on to hit within 1 foot, 6 inches of the hole to win the skill over Price. Sorenstam outmuscled the men in the short iron with a shot that landed within 2 feet, 11 inches of the hole.

“I feel like we played better than finishing last, so I’m a little disappointed in that,” said Pressel, who had six top-10 finishes this year and two career titles. “And even Nick Faldo and Rocco Mediate, they were leading the whole day and they ended up in third. It shows how top-heavy the last event is. But I thought it would be close and it was.”

Sorenstam and Pressel were taken out of contention on the green. The winners, however, didn’t put edging the women out down to skill or talent.

“That was only luck, we got lucky,” Johnson said.

“Yes, it was luck,” Kelly agreed.

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