Going Out On Top

Going Out On Top

With three wins already this year, Sorenstam proved
 that she's fully recovered from a neck and back injury.
Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography

She looked so fragile in those early years: clothes too big, limbs as spindly as autumn twigs. If you stood too close or asked a question that she didn’t like, her eyes would blink like butterfly wings. They still do every now and then, a tic that stuck even after she had become the most advanced model of golfer, a trailblazer in an often hidebound game.

Last week at Upper Montclair Country Club, an old-line New Jersey establishment hard by the roaring traffic of Route 3, 37-year-old Annika Sorenstam walked into a makeshift interview room at the Sybase Classic and told the world that she will leave competitive golf at year’s end. The announcement, as out of the blue as Sorenstam’s first U.S. Women’s Open victory in 1995 and coming on the heels of her win at the previous week’s Michelob Ultra Open, was a blow to the LPGA, which is just beginning to benefit from the buzz from a classic rivalry between Sorenstam and 26-year-old Lorena Ochoa, who a year ago ended Sorenstam’s long reign as the tour’s No. 1 player.

But those close to Sorenstam say they knew that the conclusion to a transcendent career was nigh, due in large part to the toll spent building herself into perhaps the greatest female golfer ever.

“Last year I knew it was getting close to the end,” says Terry McNamara, Sorenstam’s longtime caddie. “It was the constant strain of keeping up with her own expectations. For her it had never been work, and it was starting to become work.”

Sorenstam also cited other life factors, including her coming marriage to Mike McGee in January, her desire to start a family and her interest in the business side of the game. But the physical and mental grind of her longtime dominance was becoming increasingly wearing. Two years ago, as she prepared to play in the U.S. Women’s Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, she felt a twinge that traveled from her neck down her arm. If not for a fog delay wiping out her round and giving her a chance to rest, McNamara says, “we might not have been able to tee it up.”

Though Sorenstam won her third Open that week, other injuries began to test her. Last year, after being diagnosed as having ruptured and bulging disks, she missed nearly two months, during which time Ochoa supplanted her atop the world ranking. Sorenstam, who has been for women’s golf fitness what Tiger Woods has been for conditioning on the PGA Tour, seemed to be breaking down.

“I know she’s been talking about [retirement] for a few years, and I think she thought she might [leave] last year,” says Karrie Webb, a longtime Sorenstam foil. “I’m sure with the injury that she had, she probably didn’t want to finish on that note. She’s already had a great year, so it would not matter how she played the rest of the year. She’s proved to herself — which is probably the most important thing — that she can come back from that injury and play well.”

Through the early part of 2008 Ochoa and Sorenstam have engaged in golf’s version of Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert. Sorenstam has three wins and Ochoa six, including a major. At the Michelob, Sorenstam wore down Ochoa and everybody else, surging to a seven-shot victory, the 72nd of her career. Ochoa responded by stealing some of the spotlight from Sorenstam on the week she announced her retirement, taking a one-shot victory at the Sybase.

“Annika has been my motivation,” Ochoa says. “I’m going to miss her.”

How many pro athletes can walk away in their prime? Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax could, and just last week Justine Henin, the No. 1 player in women’s tennis, quit on the spot. While Brown and Koufax are exceptions to the legion of male athletes who persevere with deteriorating skills — taking a few more punches to the head, hearing footsteps in the pocket, missing fastballs by a foot — Sorenstam says she can let go despite sitting only 16 victories shy of Kathy Whitworth’s alltime LPGA record of 88, one of the more hallowed marks in golf. To some, Sorenstam’s retiring this year is like Woods’s ending his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major titles to take up the viola. But maybe that’s just it. Maybe women have an easier time viewing themselves as successes away from the arena. Maybe women are simply smarter.

“If a family is high on your priority list, a woman has different issues than a man,” says Hall of Famer Judy Rankin. “It’s not only the biological clock thing. It’s can you step away, have children and come back and do what it takes to get where you were before?”

Nicklaus once told Arnold Palmer in the early 1970s that he couldn’t imagine playing golf much past age 40, but then he did. Nicklaus chased the game into his 60s, taking a farewell spin at the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2005 that wasn’t much different from the farewell spin he took there in 2000. Annika? She won’t be falling down tracking fly balls in centerfield. “I’m very content with what I’ve achieved,” she says. “It just feels right.”

Certainly, Sorenstam’s resume needs no further burnishing. She shot a 59, stalked the specter of Bobby Jones and his Grand Slam, and turned the fickle feat of driving a golf ball straight into standard operating procedure. She forged a fit and athletic body by rising before dawn and doing exercises such as pull-ups with a weight plate attached to a belt. (Legend has it that she didn’t miss a scheduled workout for more than four years.) And, yes, she won tournaments by the barrelful, a record-tying five in a row between 2004 and ’05, 11 overall in ’02 and 10 major championships.

“Annika has always been someone who knows exactly where she wants to be,” says LPGA veteran Meg Mallon. “Just like Tiger, she raised the bar on our tour. She showed how fitness and preparation are two huge factors in being successful in this game. She took it to the ultimate. It’s how long she lasted in that top spot that is most impressive from a player’s perspective.”

On a bright Saturday at the Sybase, playing in the group behind Ochoa, Sorenstam hit shots in front of galleries that were three and four deep. Many of the fans begged Sorenstam not to retire.

“Look at all the people here this week,” Mallon said after Saturday’s play. “It’s as if they all realize, Hey, this may be the last time I see Annika play.”

Even with all her wins, it was a week in Fort Worth five years ago that may have cemented her legend. Against a backdrop of cheers, but also to chauvinistic snickers, she became the first woman since 1945 to compete on the PGA Tour, placing herself squarely in a sociological and cultural cross fire.

“I remember looking at her on the range 25 minutes before we were going to tee off,” McNamara says. “She was actually pale. I said, ‘Are you all right?’ She said, ‘What have I got myself into?’ “

Says Dean Wilson, one of her playing partners that week, “That was a lot of pressure, a bigger circus than anyone could’ve imagined, and I think she proved her point, whether she made the cut or not.”

Sorenstam went on to showcase her ball striking over two days, hitting the same fairways and greens that Ben Hogan once did. While her short game lacked precision, causing her to shoot 71-74 and miss the cut by four strokes, that only gave her something to work on. She went back out on the LPGA and continued trouncing the competition, hammering fairways and leaving dents on greens around the globe. She was so intent on improving that she became a constant practice partner with Woods at Isleworth Golf and Country Club, where he lives. He gave her a wedge with which to practice short-game shots. They compared workout routines. She ribbed him about her superior accuracy off the tee.

Annika Sorenstam could always drive her golf ball. That much was clear, even way back when she was a little-known player from Sweden, when it looked for all the world as if she might be toppled by the softest breeze.