Pure Annika: Going Out On Top

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 21, 2008
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Sports fans love to hold onto their heroes even after their effectiveness has become a long-departed memory. After years of living vicariously through their athletic exploits, dealing with retirement talk can be difficult. It’s upsetting enough when the announcement comes after gray hair has replaced that of a darker hue. But when it comes amidst the prime of an athlete’s career, it’s just shocking.

Such is the case with Annika Sorenstam, this generation’s greatest female golfer and arguably the best ever, said that following this season she will give up the sport she’s dominated for more than a decade.

While women’s golf does not have the broad national impact of the NFL or Major League Baseball, Sorenstam’s decision to leave her sport at age 37 has a greater connection to early exits in those sports than to Justine Henin, who just became the first female tennis player to retire while ranked No. 1 in the world. Like Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown, who both aborted their respective careers at the age of 30, Sorenstam defines her sport and is the standard-bearer for all who come after. Just as every left-hander is compared to Koufax and each running back to Brown, any woman with talent and desire who comes along in the foreseeable future will be chasing the ghost of Sorenstam.

And if there is one more recent athlete who can appreciate what the 5-foot-6-inch Swede is giving up, it may be a 5-foot-8-inch former tailback from Wichita. Barry Sanders left the game when the pressure of defeat became a burden so great that it dwarfed any desire to chase immortality.

Minus an injury-filled 2007 in which she recorded only one victory, Sorenstam had no such concerns of mounting loses. But like Sanders, who gave up the game a season removed from claiming the all-time rushing title, Sorenstam has decided to leave within eyesight of topping Kathy Whitworth in wins and Patty Berg in majors.

Sorenstam achieved the rare feat of becoming a one-name celebrity - a surprising accomplishment for the reluctant star who, for most of her career, was uncomfortable in front of the camera, keeping to herself a smart and humorous personality that hid a burning desire to win.

Though she always said the right thing, Annika never took losses lightly. Each one just made her more determined to further distance herself from the competition and if victory meant putting some verbal pressure on an opponent, then so be it. Going into her 2007 playoff against Meaghan Francella, the young 25-year-old golfer asked the seasoned pro what ball she was hitting. Sorenstam’s intimidation-laden reply of “a Titleist 59” was not lost on the younger golfer. One of Annika’s greatest feats was her LPGA record round of 59 she shot in 2001.

Proof that the imposing legacy of the former world’s No. 1 has not waned was clearly evident when Sorenstam found herself in a playoff with Paula Creamer at this year’s Stanford Invitational Pro-Am. Creamer admitted that her hands shaking while putting on the first playoff hole. Sorenstam, unfazed, calmly sank the putt for her 71st win.

Over her 16-year career, Annika not only dominated her sport, but was perhaps the world’s most recognizable female athlete. She turned pro in 1992 and the next year was named the Ladies European Tour’s Rookie of the Year. A season later, now teeing it up on the LPGA Tour, she did the same. In her second year as a full-time member on the ladies’ toughest tour, Annika scored three wins and 12 top 10 finishes in 19 events while capturing her first Major and becoming the No. 1-ranked female golfer - a title she would claim eight more times in the following 11 years. She was also named LPGA Player of the Year after leading both the LPGA and European Tours’ winnings.

Over the next 13 years, she would win 69 more times on the LPGATour and claim nine more Majors. She was 22-11-4 in Solheim Cup matches, landed seven more Player of the Year honors, was the AP Female Athlete of the Year three times, she won an ESPY for the Best Female Golfer five times and, in 2005 and 2006, won two more ESPYs for Best Female Athlete.

Now, healthy, confident and with three wins in her first eight tournaments this year, she’s giving it up to start the family she’s wanted for several years and to watch over her ever-growing business interests, which includes her ANNIKAAcademy, a blossoming golf course design business, stock and real estate investments.

Fellow Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who also left the game in her prime to start a family, said the business world is a poor substitute for the pure thrill of athletic competition - especially for someone as competitive as Annika or herself. Lopez eventually returned and no one should be surprised if in a half dozen years Sorenstam returns to reclaim what had been hers for the taking.

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