Annika Sorenstam has never had the knack for moments, as Tiger Woods does. What she’s had is sustained excellence, 13 years of it, much of it defined by her play in the U.S. Open, which she won three times. She will retire at the end of the year and Interlachen was her farewell to the championship — the only true major in women’s golf — that she so enriched.
All over the Minneapolis course on Sunday, people seemed to realize that the end was near. A father, James Norungolo, was following Sorenstam with his seven-year-old son, A.J. A.J. was ready to move on, but the father knew what they were seeing: the end of an era. “We’ll have plenty of time to see other golfers, son,” he said. “But we’ll never get another chance to see her.”
Hundreds, and maybe thousands, of other people had the same idea on Sunday: witness Sorenstam’s final round in a U.S. Open, even though the way she was playing she might not break 80.
It’s a new business for golf, this idea of announcing your retirement. It used to be that golfers just went away, as Mickey Wright and Ben Hogan did, with such style. Some of the greats, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus most notably, like so many boxers before and after them, found that they couldn’t stay away and had to make one more teary trip around the block after announcing one farewell or another. With Annika, the guess here is that this year will be her last. On that basis, Sunday at Interlachen was the end of her U.S. Open play.
To paraphrase Bobby Jones, you could take away everything else that Annika Sorenstam has done in golf — the 59 she shot, her dominating play in the British Open and scores of other tournaments, her poised and stately play against the men at Colonial — and leave her with just her U.S. Open record, and it would have been a rich and satisfying career. She won three U.S. Opens, including her first professional win in 1995, was in the Sunday mix a bunch of other times, and finished her U.S. Open career by holing out from 199 yards with a 6-iron on the 72nd hole for an eagle and a closing 78 when she was playing, she said, on fumes. She needed the hole-out, she later joked, to break 80.
Her stock-in-trade her whole career has been straight driving, excellent distance control, a rock-steady head, an awesome dedication to strength-training and practice and a swing that had the pace of a metronome. Over the first three rounds at Interlachen, there may have been nobody who played better tee-to-green, but her putting was woeful. She brought to mind Hogan at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. That year Arnold Palmer won and Jack Nicklaus announced his big-league arrival and Hogan might have won, had he putted with anything like a reliable stroke. But Annika was spent and a tired mind shows up first on the greens and later on other shots. On 17, facing a straight-forward tee shot, she hit a dead pull. It was almost shocking, to see her hit something so far off-line. On 18, looking at another simple tee shot, she hit a weak push into the right trees, saving her last bit of energy for a loud, “Fore!” She surely has missed two consecutive fairways before in her career, but not often.
For her second shot on 18, she could have tried some crazy, slicing, over-the-pond and down-breeze recovery thingamajig, but that’s not her way and never has been. She once played with Jesper Parnevik, an eccentric fellow Swede, in a mixed-team event. He was talking about hitting low slice-hooks out of the weeds with a hooded face and a weak grip — or something along those lines — and Annika said to him, “I think you’re making it too complicated.”
For her second shot on 18, Annika pitched out and over a plaque commemorating a legendary shot played by Bobby Jones when he won the U.S. Open at Interlachen in 1930, his Grand Slam year. She then walked fast to her ball, as she always has, her toes slightly out, her muscular body a study in efficiency. When she won her first two U.S. Opens, in ’95 and again in ’96, she had the physique of a skinny schoolgirl. By the time she won her third and final U.S. Open in 2005, she was built like a Division III fullback and was still that muscular at her Interlachen finale.
People applauded and cheered her garden-variety pitchout and Annika, maybe a little embarrassed, raised her left hand quickly in acknowledgment, but barely shoulder-high. There’s always been a wide modest streak there.
She and her longtime caddie, Terry McNamara, quickly discussed the yardage and the wind and the hill and the pin placement. One-hundred and ninety-nine yards, uphill, downwind. You saw what happened on the replays and here’s McNamara’s description: “We talked about landing it 15 feet short and have it run up to the hole. The shot never left the flagstick.”
It was one of the most stirring shots you could ever imagine and that Annika did not know it went in until the roar of the crowd told her where it was made it all the sweeter. What a way to go out. The roar and ovation that greeted her told A.J. and his father and the other players and everybody else on the cramp, wonderful playing fields of Interlachen what had happened: Annika had bade the U.S. Open farewell.