EDINA, Minn. (AP) — The practice range at Interlachen was filled with young players hitting balls under the late afternoon sun, many of them playing in the U.S. Women’s Open for the first time and soaking up all it offers.
In the middle of this activity was Annika Sorenstam, without any fanfare, longtime Swedish coach Henri Reis at her side.
She was trying not to soak up the memories.
“I can be an emotional player,” Sorenstam said. “But I can also be a very cold player. And I try to just stay cold about my emotions and focus on what I have to do. But I do know in the back of my mind that when Sunday comes, I will not be playing here any more.”
Sorenstam, 37, announced six weeks ago that she is retiring from competition at the end of the year. She does not want this to be a farewell tour, concentrating instead on piling up as many victories as she can, determined to add at least one more major to her collection.
But this week is different.
The U.S. Women’s Open, which starts Thursday at Interlachen, means more to her than any other major. She captured the first of her 72 victories on the LPGA Tour in the 1995 Women’s Open at the Broadmoor, made it two in a row the next year at Pine Needles, then went an entire decade before adding her third title in 2006 at Newport.
It means so much that she refers to it simply as “The Open,” rare words coming from a European.
And even in retirement, she has agreed to become a “USGA ambassador,” getting involved with everything from the Rules of Golf to programs aimed at getting more younger players involved.
“I care a lot about this championship, and I’m going to do the best I can to be up there on Sunday,” she said.
But she realizes it will be hard work.
Part of the challenge comes from those around her, particularly Lorena Ochoa, who has replaced as her as the dominant player in women’s golf. Ochoa won the first major of the year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and like Sorenstam, finished one shot out of the playoff earlier this month at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.
Sorenstam will be playing with Paula Creamer, one only three players with multiple victories on the LPGA Tour this year, and Suzann Pettersen, who turned in a dazzling performance six years ago at Interlachen by rallying from five holes down with five to play to earn a halve against Michele Redman in the Solheim Cup.
The greatest test could be Interlachen, designed by Donald Ross, touched up by Robert Trent Jones, at 6,789 yards the longest golf course in Women’s Open history. Some of that length is negated by the course playing as a par 73 with five par 5s, and by the elevated greens with undulations so severe that the USGA has gone conservative with some of the hole locations.
“Sometimes caddies, they come and talk to you, ‘We really need to be below the hole.’ Sometimes they overreact,” Ochoa said. “It’s OK if you are 2 or 3 feet by, you can make a nice birdie putt. Not on these greens. You really need to pay attention.”
Rarely has Sorenstam ever had to pay such attention to her emotions.
She was a teenager in Stockholm when Liselotte Neumann became the first Swede to win a U.S. Women’s Open in 1988, and Sorenstam recalls finding inspiration from the stories she read in the newspaper the next morning. Even when she started playing golf, every putt on the practice green was for the Open.
“The Open has always meant a lot to me,” she said.
Now, she has a chance to join Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls as the only four-time winners of the U.S. Women’s Open. And she could end her career the way it began, hoisting the most significant trophy in women’s golf.
From her long hours on the range with Reis, to a putting lesson from two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton two week ago in Utah, Sorenstam has poured everything into peaking at just the right time.
“She’s not too nostalgic,” fiance Mike McGee said as he followed her around Interlachen in her final practice round. “But this is the biggest major for her. This is what she wants to win.”
There was time for some nostalgia Wednesday.
Sorenstam dropped a few balls at her feet in front of the fifth green, then chipped to an imaginary hole as she does during a practice round for most majors. Reis suddenly turned and pulled a camera from his bag, crouching to take a few pictures.
Was he studying the position of her stance? Her grip? Her posture?
Sorenstam smiled when asked the purpose of the pictures.
“There for a collection,” she said. “He’s just taking memories from here.”
There is time for such occasions, not but much of it. There is not much left in her tank, which is why she decided last month to walk away from a game she dominated like no other player in her generation.
Critical to Sorenstam is starting strong and keeping the tank full.
“You only have so much to give, and I’m coming to a point where it’s hard to get geared up other than for big events,” she said. “I have a lot of patience coming into a tournament. If it goes well, it’s easy to stay on top and keep going. But when things are not going so well, it’s easy to lose it.”
That’s one reason she decided this year will be her last. If she could win only more tournament, this would be it.