Annika Sorenstam’s career is defined by numbers. 59—Sorenstam is the only woman ever to shoot a round in the 50s. 88—the career wins record held by Kathy Whitworth, which Annika trails by only 26.
These numbers define Annika’s greatness, and they drive the shy Swede toward heights that just a few years ago seemed unimaginable. From her home in Orlando, the Hall of Famer spoke candidly about her pursuit of the career wins record, her chances for a Grand Slam, her practice sessions with Tiger and her stock-market advice (diversify!).
Let’s begin with a little number association. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear these numbers …54? My vision. Birdie every hole.
59? A great round. An awesome round. March 16th .
88? It’s impossible.
Even at the rate you’re racking up wins? At this rate, no. But how long can I keep up this rate?
How about four more for the 2005 Grand Slam? That’s my goal. Right now, 88 is not really my goal. It doesn’t seem possible because it’s so far away. But winning four majors is possible because I’ve won 11 tournaments in one year, so I think I can win four. It’s just a matter of winning the right four.
Which would be the greater accomplishment: 88 career wins or the Grand Slam? If I could choose, I’d want to win the Grand Slam.
Your frequent practice partner Tiger Woods is the only player alive to hold all four major titles at once (the “Tiger Slam”). Has he given you any advice? He and I have talked about it. He considers what he did a Grand Slam and so do I. He held all four titles. I remember him saying that the courses he played fit him perfectly. That’s the thing: I think the courses I’m playing this year really suit me. So that’s one factor. Then again, a lot depends on how the other players are playing. If someone gets really hot, there’s little you can do. For example, at the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open when Juli [Inkster] won, she made 40-, 60-, 80-footers. They told me afterward that 99 percent of the time my score would have won the U.S. Open.
You’ve won nine majors to date but you’ve gone on record as saying you should have won several more. What have you learned from those past failures in majors? Sometimes I want it too badly. The logical part of me knows what’s going on. But when you’re out there, does your heart know it? Can you control it? I’m going to be nervous at the U.S. Open. I’m going to be nervous at the British if I’ve won three [majors] in a row. I’ve never been there before so it would probably be like the Colonial, where I felt tremendous pressure on every shot. But that’s cool because I know that’s what it’s going to take. I know I can win all four because I’ve done it–I just haven’t done it in the same year. That’s what makes it so hard. Everybody talks about it, the pressure builds and then my expectations start to build.
What’s your most vivid memory about the day you fired 59? I remember the start because it was just so incredible. I birdied the first eight holes. The shots weren’t really that great, but it was just the flow to it all and the momentum just kept building and building. I could do nothing wrong that day. Everything funneled to the green. Every putt had the right pace.
You birdied 12 of the first 13 holes that day. Describe what it feels like to be in the zone. First of all, it feels effortless. You don’t think about hazards. You think about fairways and greens. When you putt, you see a big hole. You see the line. You don’t question your decisions. You’re never in between clubs: It’s not between a 7- or 8-iron, it’s either a 7 or an 8. You get good bounces. Your shots release the way you planned.
Is there one current LPGA player who you think could shoot 59? I think Grace [Park] has the ability to go really low. Has what happened in your personal life changed your thinking about how much longer you’ll play? (Annika filed for divorce from her husband of eight years, David Esch, in February.) Yes. For me, it definitely has changed because now golf is all my life. It’s sort of my way of dealing with the whole thing.
Are you more determined to win because of what’s happened? Probably. I’m practicing harder because, like I said, it’s my way of getting away from it all. The golf course is my sanctuary right now.
What can you say you’ve learned most about yourself in the past few months, and about other people? That I have a great network of friends who’ve been very supportive and who I’ve been able to lean on during these tough times. I’ve spent a lot of time with my parents, which has been really nice. I think what you learn is how tenuous everything is, that you can’t take anything for granted. You think something is forever, but it’s not and you have to learn to adjust. Just like that. You can’t be afraid and hide. Some people do, but that’s not me.
To this day, what has been the single greatest moment in your career? I’d have to say the Colonial. The thing is, I’ve been so fortunate the last few years because every time I tee it up I have some purpose, a chance to break a record or make history. I was the first to shoot 59 and the first to make $2 million in a year. There’s been so many historical moments, which is fun for me.
What do you think the next generation holds for women’s golf? Will the players be better? I think so. Everyone’s practicing harder. They’re more into working out and getting in shape. The equipment is better, the golf courses are better and the competition is better. In another five, 10 or 20 years, if it continues like this, the scoring average will be 68.
Some male players have said that women should have to qualify to play in a PGA Tour event. Do you agree? I disagree because it really doesn’t matter who they give the exemption to. Take a local tournament, they might give a spot to a local amateur. Or to the friend of the local pizza parlor. It’s up to the sponsors and whether they think that person can add something to the event.
Not even the British Open? Well, first let me comment on the R&A’s decision. I think that was a great rule. I’m glad to see they’re opening it up to women. Does that change my view about [playing]? No. Maybe it will for somebody else.
What would it take? I don’t know. Maybe if I won every tournament this year, because then I will have won the Grand Slam. But I know I can’t win out there. I’d have to play really, really well just to finish in the top 50. I don’t know if I’d learn so much from that. I’ve learned here and there, practicing with Tiger and playing in Skins Games. But I don’t think I can learn a lot more playing week to week.
Plus, it’s such a different feeling to always be behind. To be in the lead on Sunday, it’s hard. You’re constantly looking over your shoulder. It’s a cool feeling.
So making the cut in a PGA Tour event wouldn’t be satisfying? No.
Have any of the men who criticized you for playing in the Colonial come back and apologized to you? Yes, Scott Verplank did. I remember he was critical and he said something at the Colonial. He’s the only guy who said something negative and changed his mind. A lot of guys came up to me and said what I was doing was great.
Can you describe what you were feeling over your first tee shot at Colonial? Was it the most pressure you’ve ever faced? Yes. It was so much pressure. Everybody was watching me. I was under the microscope. I felt like people were going to analyze me for everything. They were going to analyze me for my accuracy, my distance, my spin on the ball. Everything. I knew they were going to have an opinion. It was so much pressure. I wanted to show everyone else that I could play.
Michelle Wie finished runner-up to you in the LPGA Championship and will be making her third PGA Tour start in the John Deere Classic (July 7-10). Do you think it’s good for her to play in these PGA Tour events, or would she benefit more by playing against competition her own age — and winning? So far, [her parents] haven’t made any bad decisions. She’s 15 and she’s come a long way. Time will tell if they did the right thing or not. If it were my kid, I’d recommend she play more junior events to learn how to win. I do think it’s very important to play with better players and learn from that, but I don’t think you necessarily have to be in competition to do that. She has no junior record. And you don’t get that chance back. It’s definitely important to learn how to win, and you can’t come back in 10 years and say, “Hey, I missed my whole junior career.” She’ll have plenty of time to do the other stuff as well.
What’s the most impressive thing about her game? Her swing. She has great rhythm, and technically she’s very sound. She’s tall. I think she’s three or four inches taller than me. So she’s got a big arc to her swing and she can obviously hit it very far. I’d love to be 6-feet tall.
What’s the most impressive thing about your game? I’m consistent. I can repeat my swing.
Tiger was quoted at The Masters as saying how cool it was that you put some of the shots you practiced together into competition. You would try them out and then call him afterward. What were some of the shots? He’s taught me a few shots around the green using a lob wedge — opening the face angle, moving the ball forward or back in my stance — that’s what we tried and that’s the only way I chip nowadays. It is cool for me because he has so much imagination. Then again, there’s a lot of shots I could never hit, simply because of his strength and the fact I can’t generate as much [clubhead] speed and spin as he does. You see what he did on the 16th hole at Augusta [a chip-in birdie during final round of The Masters] and you go, Wow, am I ever going to be able to do that? Maybe not. But it’s nice to see that it’s possible.
You’ve said in the past that if you didn’t play golf, you’d love to be a chef. If you could host the Champions Dinner at The Masters, what would you serve? Probably seafood. I love oysters Rockefeller, so that would be the starter. I love sea bass. And for dessert, probably a banana split.
What is your hidden talent? I have an interest in the stock market. I have a good memory, so I remember numbers.
When did you start investing seriously? When I made my first check on the LPGA Tour. I realized, “Ooh, I’ve got some money. What should I do with it?” I could just dump it all into some bank or I could invest it and learn how to make even more money with it.
Give our readers a stock tip. What do you think is the next big growth area? Right now, I would keep my money in cash. I think the market may take a little downturn.
Where else do you invest? I believe in diversification. I have a little bit here and a little bit there, to try to minimize my risks. I am not very aggressive because I want to be prepared for a downturn or an upswing in the market.
Do you consider yourself a nerd? Yes, when it comes to numbers. I keep very specific stats. For instance, I’ll write down where on the green I putt from. Most people are happy just to be on the green. I’ll break down the green into little squares — was I above the hole, below, pin-high, left, right, etc.? I keep track of how many putts I miss from closer than six feet. That has really improved. Right now, I miss probably three a tournament.
If you woke up tomorrow without any fame or money, what would you miss most? I would miss the feeling of standing on the tee with all of the excitement. The fans. The winning.
Does it bother you that you’re clearly the most dominant player in your sport today — maybe ever — and you don’t get the acclaim that Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan gets? No. Growing up I used to miss putts on purpose so I didn’t have to give a victory speech. I don’t play for fame or accolades. For me, it’s all about performance and satisfaction. Of course, it’s very nice when you get recognized. But it’s not like I sit at home reading magazines or the paper thinking that I should have been written about more. I don’t get as much [acclaim]. But I’ve accepted that and it doesn’t motivate me in any way.
What’s the funniest story regarding your anonymity? A few weeks ago I was in the gym with my sister Lotta and this guy comes up to me, points at me, and says, “You know, you could really play Annika’s double?” And Lotta says, “Yeah, you’re right.” He didn’t know it was me but he thought I could play my own double. And that’s so funny to my sister. Stuff like that happens quite a bit. I’ve had people come over to help at the house and they’ll say, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Annika Sorenstam?” And I’ll say, “Who?”
So that’s much better than being hounded in public like Tiger? I have a perfect life that way. I can go places without people stopping me. They think it’s me, but then they think, “No, it can’t be her.” But it’s funny because when people do recognize me, they always come up and they whisper, “I know who you are.” It cracks me up.