Annika Sorenstam walked away from golf, totally prepared to begin the rest of her life

Thursday December 4th, 2008
Sorenstam missed the cut at the ADT but finished with 89 wins worldwide, including the 1996 U.S. Open.
David Walberg/SI

Now comes phase II: branding Annika. For 15 years, the length of her LPGA career, Annika Sorenstam dissected a difficult game with obsessive zeal. In her new career, she'll apply her analytical skills to selling Annika perfume, Annika wine, Annika golf courses, Annika teaching and fitness centers, Annika clothing lines. She'll be raising money for her charity, the Annika Foundation. Plus, on Jan. ;10 she'll become Annika the newlywed. (Her future husband, Mike McGee, is the managing director of Annika, the company.) She's 38, and her fondest wish is to become Annika the mother. It's been a long time coming. She has always said that she could not be a mother and play tournament golf. It had to be one or the other.

A half-year ago she announced that she was . . . stepping aside from tournament golf. (She refuses to use what she calls "the r word.") Last Friday, Sorenstam — one of the most dominating athletes of any sport in any era — concluded her iconic LPGA career by missing the cut in the ADT Championship at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Ji-Yai Shin won.) Not the farewell she was looking for. (Lousy putting.) Still, the native Swede carried herself in her usual way, a curious blend of reserve and confidence; around her neck dangled a delicate diamond A, while a large, brash metal A belt buckle held up her slacks.

When Sorenstam made her final tap-in for par, bathed in sunshine on a gorgeous South Florida afternoon, her parents and sister and fiance were standing beside the 18th green. The sister, Charlotta Sorenstam, a former LPGA player who now teaches at the Annika Academy, had her right thumb on a bottle of champagne, ready to spray the bubbly. Annika wanted no part of it. For one thing, what exactly were they celebrating? Rounds of 74 and 75? Plus, it wasn't really over: She has two more events overseas. And she leaves open the possibility that she could return.

What did conclude Friday was her life as a full-time LPGA player, and Donald Trump, among thousands of other fans, was a witness to it. So was Lorena Ochoa, who has replaced Sorenstam as the LPGA's most dominant player. Last week Trump, who has a lunging but effective swing, was getting golf tips from Annika, and Annika, who has a modest but winning sales pitch, was getting branding tips from Trump. The odd couple, who played together in the Wednesday pro-am, get along famously.

"Annika," Trump said, "look at all these great young Korean players out here. How did they get so good?"

"They get up at five or six," Sorenstam said. "They're chipping and putting by seven. At seven at night they're still putting and chipping."

She might have been describing herself, or her former self, with one notable difference. A good number of the young South Korean players on the LPGA tour travel with authoritative fathers who push their daughters to practice. Sorenstam was introduced to golf in Sweden by her parents, Tom, a retired IBM systems engineer and marketing executive, and Guinella, but Annika played at Arizona State and joined the tour without supervision. Her otherworldly drive came from some place deep within, someplace even she cannot identify. Tiger Woods has always used Jack Nicklaus's career as a model and inspiration, but Annika never had an equivalent. "We had no expectations for Annika," Tom Sorenstam said last week.

Various people tried to talk her out of her decision to step aside. The LPGA commissioner, Carolyn Bivens. Tournament sponsors. Equipment manufacturers. Fans. Players. Her caddie, Terry McNamara. But when he realized why Sorenstam was leaving competitive play, he kept quiet.

"Her practice sessions had changed," he said. "It got to be work. We used to go six, seven hours on a practice tee, and it went by like it was nothing because it was so much fun and her focus was so intense." But then she started going to the range and actually found herself thinking about other things, and that's when she knew. She used to stand by a hole and make one tap-in after another, hundreds of them, simply to get accustomed to hearing the sweet sound of the ball dropping into the cup. At some point that got old.

For years her devotion was fierce. Even in 2004 and '05, when she was going through a divorce from her first husband, David Esch, Sorenstam didn't miss a beat. The split, which cost her millions, came during her most torrid period, 2001 through '05, which Sorenstam's Boswell, Ron Sirak of Golf World, calls her "Koufax years." She played in 104 events and won 43 times, including seven majors, for a .427 winning percentage. All told, she has 72 LPGA wins, plus another 17 worldwide. Last week, she missed a cut for only the 10th time in her LPGA career, during which she earned $22.5 million on the course and, according to reliable reports, far more off it.

When the round was over, after the "cold Swede," as Sorenstam mockingly referred to herself, had cried and hugged and signed autographs and given interviews, she was required to submit a urine sample under the LPGA's new drug-testing program. Her name was chosen at random and she complied without complaint.

Her LPGA career, like the world in the T.S. Eliot poem, ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. But watching Annika on the 18th green on Friday — she tapped in, waved the flagstick to the crowd and returned it to the hole herself — brought back the final shot she took at this year's U.S. Open, a six-iron from 199 yards that finished in the hole for eagle. It was an Annika moment, among many, in which quality carried the day.

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