On Tuesday afternoon, perhaps the greatest female golfer ever to play the game walked into the media tent of the Sybase Classic at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J. Seated behind a folding table and surrounded by green plywood walls, Annika Sorenstam’s blue eyes flashed around the room. She smiled and announced that she was stepping away from competitive golf at the end of the season.
“I have other priorities,” she said. “A lot of dreams I want to follow. I’m getting married next January, and I want to start a family and continue to build the Annika brand of businesses, including my academy, my foundation, and my golf course design projects.”
Over the years, everything about Sorenstam, from her effortless swing to her on-course demeanor, portrayed a certain bloodless efficiency. Although she referenced Brett Favre on Tuesday, saying that she too was no longer up for the daily grind, she shed no tears during her press conference, which was much less emotional than that of the now-retired Green Bay quarterback. Perhaps that’s because she still has 17 tournaments left to play this year, including several overseas.
“There’s still golf to be played,” she said. “I have another seven months left, and my goal is to win tournaments, to win majors.”
It may also help that over a 15-year career Sorenstam has won more than $22 million, 72 LPGA events, 10 majors and 16 international tournaments. She also made a historic start at the PGA Tour’s Colonial in 2003, shot an iconic 59 in tournament play in 2001, and was named LPGA player of the year eight times.
“I am very proud of what I’ve achieved,” she said. “Golf has been great to me. I think I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I could. I have given it my all and it’s been fun. I have come back from injury and I feel strong, and the season has started really well. I’m leaving the game on my terms.”
What remains undone is reclaiming the No. 1 ranking from Lorena Ochoa, the leader of a new wave of talented young golfers, and passing Kathy Whitworth’s record mark of 88 LPGA wins. Sorenstam said she was not motivated by either of those targets and instead wanted to move on.
“I’m very happy in my life. I’m very content with what I’ve achieved, and it just feels right. I’m at peace with what I’m doing.”
At the same time, Sorenstam didn’t completely shut the door on teeing it up again, saying “I never use the R word.” She added: “December will be my last tournament. If it’s forever, I’m not really sure, but it’s definitely for now.”
Her last appearance will be at the Dubai Ladies Masters in December, but her last LPGA event will be the ADT Championship at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., Nov. 20-23. That week will be particularly emotional for Sorenstam not only because it will be her last U.S. competition, but also because it’s the event where she met her fiance, Mike McGee, a sports agent and the son of former PGA Tour player Jerry McGee. Discussing the topic was one of only two times Annika appeared to struggle with her emotions at the press conference.
“I’m really not sure how I’ll feel down there,” she said. “It’s a special place. I really don’t want to think about it. [This announcement] is tough enough. I want to try to enjoy every tournament and every week and really absorb it. And I don’t want to think too far ahead. Seven months is going to go by really quickly, and let’s just take this week.”
Since she arrived on tour, Sorenstam has been a force. She claimed rookie of the year honors in 1994 and then emerged to challenge Karrie Webb for dominance in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Sorenstam won that battle decisively when Webb’s game fell off in 2001 and Sorenstam launched a barrage of 48 victories between 2000 and 2005, including 11 in 2002 and 10 in 2005.
Certainly that span catapulted her into the best-ever conversation along with Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Nancy Lopez, and it defined the last decade as the Annika era. It is an era that has now begun its inevitable conclusion, and it is not, even for Annika, without a touch of sadness.
“I will leave with some great memories from every place, and that will carry me on to the next phase of my life,” she said toward the end, her eyes threatening to tear up for only the second time all day. But they didn’t. Instead she got up to leave. There was applause and a few hugs and she was gone.
Outside, where the rest of the world of women’s golf was supposed to be preparing for a tournament, everything seemed to have come to a stop. For a moment, at least, there was no one on the putting green, no trucks backing up to the clubhouse, no movement or sound anywhere. In a moment it all came back. The singing birds, the people shuttling around the course, the sound of the cars whipping by on Route 3, off to the heart of New York City, only 12 miles away.