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Driving with Boys

updated 05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/2003 01:00AM

When she's done being the best female golfer on the planet, Annika Sorenstam will sink her teeth into another passion: cheesecake. Or fried shrimp. Or maybe crab cakes. Last year the Swedish swinging sensation spent six weeks in the kitchen of an Orlando restaurant prepping for a second career as a chef. "I make a really good Italian sausage," says Sorenstam, 32, "with a little Swedish flavor in it."

But first she's whipping up something special at her day job. On May 22 the LPGA's top player will tee off at the Bank of America Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, making her the first female golfer to play in a men's tour event since the great Babe Didrik-son Zaharias did it in 1945. Nearly unstoppable against her own sex—she won 13 of the 25 tournaments she entered last year—she scored the invitation "not to try and beat the guys; Annika is doing this to beat Annika," says Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez, 45. "This is a big test for her."

Growing up outside Stockholm, she wanted to be Bjorn Borg, but at 12 she dropped tennis for golf and learned the game from her parents, Tom, 61, and Gunilla, 59 (her sister Charlotta, 30, is also an LPGA pro). Bland and icy in her first years on tour, she married golf-club salesman David Esch, now 33, in 1997 and lately has been "more playful, more outgoing," says Swedish journalist Gunnar Nordstrom. "She's finally enjoying life." Sorenstam credits Esch, now devoted full-time to handling his wife's affairs, with "being there whenever I need him and doing everything to help me play better," she says. "That's invaluable."

So was her recent practice round with Tiger Woods, though few give the 5'6" Sorenstam much of a chance to shine against the big-hitting PGA brutes. Sorenstam herself downplays expectations. Her goal, she insists, is "to have a good time." But those who know her say there could be a little surprise on the menu. "When the pressure is on, she has nerves of steel," says Nordstrom. "Deep down she's thinking, 'I'm going to show them.' "

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