Annika Sorenstam has only one top 10 in her last eight events.
Matt York/AP
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

(AP) — The boisterous ovation she heard walking toward the 18th green was the kind typically reserved for the winner. But if that were the case, Annika Sorenstam would have won her 13th straight tournament last week.

Instead, she tied for 25th at the Kapalua LPGA Classic. It was the ninth time in her last 11 events she failed to record a top 10.

Then she boarded a plane to China, and the countdown to retirement continued.

This is not going the way Sorenstam would have liked, or most people would have imagined, when she announced May 13 that this season would be her last on the LPGA Tour.

At the time, the 38-year-old Swede had just won the Michelob Ultra Open for her second straight victory, third of the season, 72nd of her career. She had played eight tournaments and finished out of the top 10 only once. She was runner-up in the first major of the year.

Why stop?

"I have other priorities in my life. I have a lot of dreams that I want to follow," she said that day. "I think I've achieved more than I ever thought I could. I have given it all, and it's been fun."

The question now is why she didn't stop then.

No other sport is more difficult to retire from than golf. Arnold Palmer was lured by the adoration of his army for so long that they quit posting his score at some tournaments. Jack Nicklaus fumed whenever someone congratulated him on making the cut, but was lucky to stumble into a graceful retirement at St. Andrews.

No one made a cleaner break from golf than Ben Hogan. On the 12th hole of the 1971 Houston Championship, he wrenched his knee on a tee shot, was driven off the course in a cart and never played another tournament.

All of them were well past their prime.

Sorenstam, by contrast, was coming off back-to-back victories when she said that she was done. She already had gone over $1 million for the 10th time in her career.

The only problem was she couldn't walk away at that exact moment for practical reasons. She owed it to the fans and her sponsors to finish out the year, and she owed it to herself to discover the admiration they have for her.

Plus, there were three majors still on the calendar. Sorenstam came within inches of making a birdie putt to join the playoff at the LPGA Championship.

But that's the last anyone saw of her — at least, the Sorenstam they remember.

She has played eight times on the LPGA Tour since then. She has broken 70 only six times in 31 rounds. She has cracked the top 10 only once, a tie for sixth in the 54-hole Safeway Classic. About the only shot anyone remembers is when she holed out with a 6-iron from 199 yards for eagle on the final hole of the U.S. Women's Open. That gave her a tie for 24th.

Some farewell tour.

"Yeah, it's been very different since I announced my stepping away," Sorenstam said in a conference call last week. "I have not played as well. I don't know if it's because I've been very busy just getting involved with tournaments and saying goodbye and engaging with fans and sponsors, or just maybe unconsciously knowing that I've made the decision and I'm having a hard time focusing.

"I'm not really sure. But I've definitely not played as well."

Adding to the malaise is the economy. One reason Sorenstam announced her retirement early in the season — and in New York — was to build momentum for her business interests when she steps away, from her brand to her academy to her foundation to golf course design.

This is a tough time to be doing business.

Meanwhile, the retirement tour drags on.

The overwhelming support she receives at every tournament comes with equal doses of distractions. She is reminded at every turn that she has only seven tournaments left, six tournaments left.

"It happens every week," she said. "Everybody asks me. I'm sure I keep track of it myself. You know, the countdown has started. In a way, I just want to focus on each week. But of course, you can't get away from it."

It shows in the statistics, which are alarming.

Sorenstam has fallen to 48th in distance with an average drive of 251.3 yards, down from 269.7 yards five years ago. She is tied for 54th in fairways hit, once her hallmark. She has finished in the top 10 only nine times in 19 starts on the LPGA Tour this year, her worst percentage since her rookie year in 1994.

The back and neck injury that cost her the better part of 2006 might have been more than a physical setback. Perhaps it was at home, away from golf, when Sorenstam realized how much she was sacrificing.

Maybe that explains why it's so difficult to practice with the same resolve, knowing that in two months she won't have anywhere to play or anything to prove. Even leaving the game at the top doesn't make retirement easy in golf.

"To compete at this level, you have to practice, and you have to dedicate yourself full-time," Sorenstam said. "I just don't have that in me anymore."

She has one big road trip remaining. Sorenstam is scheduled to play twice in China, a skins game in Japan, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico, then the ADT Championship in Florida, her final appearance on the LPGA Tour. Then it's off to the Lexus Cup in Singapore, and the career-ending Dubai Ladies Masters.

If she plays well in China and Mexico, and wins the ADT Championship, Sorenstam could still win the LPGA Tour money title. That would be the ideal way to end a sensational career.

But as Sorenstam has discovered, the only thing to bank on in retirement are the memories.

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