One tournament speaks to Annika’s dominance
EDITORS – The Associated Press is asking members to vote on their choice for Athlete of the Decade. Their selection will be announced Dec. 16. Ahead of that pick, the AP is profiling some of the leading candidates.
For all the amazing numbers connected with Annika Sorenstam, from her 54 victories on the LPGA Tour in one decade to becoming the only woman to shoot 59, it was one simple swing with a 4-wood that turned the once-shy Swede into a one-name athlete.
The club carried the weight of an entire gender that Thursday at Colonial in 2003 when Sorenstam drew it back and sent her tee shot down the 10th fairway, becoming the first woman in 58 years to tee it up on the PGA Tour.
Not many remember that she missed the cut, one of only three times in the 2000s she didn’t play on the weekend.
It’s the qualities implicit in statistics like that – Sorenstam’s dominance, her consistency, her ability to play on the same stage as male golfers – that make her a candidate for The Associated Press’ Athlete of the Decade.
She pursued perfection through a concept called “Vision 54,” the idea that one could birdie every hole. And while she never got there, Sorenstam never quit trying. In her best season of the decade, she won 11 times on the LPGA Tour in 2002, set a record for earnings and became the first woman with a sub-69 scoring average.
With nothing left to prove, she decided to take on the men.
“If you look back at her motivation, she did it to test herself, to raise her own level,” said Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner during Sorenstam’s rise to stardom. “Along with that came pressure, hype, distractions from all the other places, and it added to the overall significance. From that moment on, she became a one-name athlete – like Tiger, like Ali.”
Even Tiger Woods looks back on Sorenstam’s decade with wonder.
They became friends through having the same agent, played an occasional practice round together in Florida, and were teammates in a made-for-TV exhibition. They even exchanged text messages each time they won a major, a friendly competition to see who could win more.
“She was as consistent as any player that ever played the game,” Woods said in an interview several weeks ago, before he suddenly captured tabloid headlines. “She was more efficient (than anyone) at winning and managing her game, male or female.”
Told that he had actually won more times in the decade, Woods smiled and said, “She retired.”
Sorenstam walked away from the game last year at age 38, still close to the top, saying she wanted to pursue a family and a business venture, and she couldn’t allow herself to play without giving it her all.
That’s what made her Annika.
She was among the first to bring fitness to the LPGA, working out at a frenetic pace. In a sport that features so many moving parts, her swing repeated itself so beautifully that it looked robotic, and it produced machine-like results.
Sorenstam went six consecutive years winning a major, six consecutive years with at least five victories, including 11 times in 2002 and 10 times in 2005.
In a sport that is difficult to dominate, her consistency was simply staggering.
She won 30 percent of her tournaments in the 2000s, and the rest of the time she was awfully close. Sorenstam finished no worse than third 97 times, and 74 percent of the time she was in the top 10.
“She was the model of consistency,” Dottie Pepper said. “Tiger can’t hold a candle to that. It was a shocking week when she wasn’t on the first two pages of the leaderboard going into Sunday.”
It was even more shocking when Sorenstam couldn’t be found at all.
Only five women – Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs and Betsy Rawls – won more tournaments in their careers than the 54 times Sorenstam won in a single decade.
“Her dominance in that period of time reminded me a lot of Sandy Koufax,” Votaw said. “She was so far and above an accomplished competitor that she became a marvel to watch.”
Beyond the numbers, however, was her impact.
She was the only player to have a tournament named after her in Europe and the United States. She became such a powerful attraction that the tour instituted a “1-in-4” rule that required players to compete in every tournament at least once every four years, an effort to make sure Sorenstam played in as many different tournaments as possible to share the wealth.
And she changed the way players prepared for tournaments.
“She took women’s golf to another level – not only how she played, but how she prepared,” Woods said.
Typical of most dominant athletes, Sorenstam’s only rival was history. Karrie Webb challenged her at the start of the decade, and Lorena Ochoa arrived toward the end of Sorenstam’s reign. Combine the victories of those two Hall of Fame players – 47 – and it doesn’t match what Sorenstam achieved on her own.
Interest in women’s golf reached a peak, as did prize money, because of Sorenstam.
“Probably more than any other player since Nancy Lopez, she elevated not only the stature of the tour itself but also the competitive level of the tour,” Votaw said. “They knew they had to raise their game in some way to challenge her.”
Even during some her darkest days, Sorenstam thrived. She went through a divorce in 2005, yet still managed to win the first two majors and had golf buzzing about the possibility of a calendar Grand Slam until she came up short in the U.S. Women’s Open.
Sorenstam still achieved the career Grand Slam, along with induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame at age 33.
“I think she has become the most precise golfer we’ve ever know in women’s golf,” Judy Rankin said. “When you couple that with strength and length, she’s a little different than anyone we’ve had.”
And it could be awhile before they find anyone like her.