Annika Sorenstam: Motherhood beckons for Swedish star
She has dominated women's golf over the last decade, winning 10 majors, but this weekend's British Open will be her last – or maybe not. She explains all to Chris McGrath
Thursday 31 July 2008
The American humorist Gene Perret has gone for a short swim at least once a day since his retirement. "It's either that," he says, "or buy a new golf ball." For Annika Sorenstam, the game may yet prove just as maddening during the coming days of ease, though for very different reasons.
At Sunningdale today one of golf's greatest achievers begins her quest for an 11th and final major in the Women's British Open. Ever since May, when Sorenstam announced that she would abandon competitive golf at the end of the year, she has been on a bittersweet farewell odyssey. There are a few tournaments still to come, but this is her last great stage. And, now that the moment has come, few can quite believe that she is really ready to walk away.
Still only 37, how on earth is she supposed to adjust that predatory focus to some frivolous, corporate twilight? In her first two majors this year, she finished second and third; and while she finished down the field in the US Open last month, her parting shot was to hole out from 200 yards. Earlier this week, as the turf and woodland of Sunningdale smouldered fragrantly in the heat, she accepted that it might prove difficult to reprise such a game in a competitive void.
"I guess we'll have to see," she said. "It will be [difficult]... But I'm going to maintain my golf with my academy. My sponsors are sticking with me, so I'm going to be doing a lot of corporate stuff. It's just getting away from the daily grind, from the expectations of always having to perform, giving me a little break."
As it happens, Sorenstam never spoke explicitly of "retirement". Three years after the end of her first marriage, she is engaged to her business manager, Mike McGee, and they hope to start a family. She has many projects she is eager to promote, both commercial and charitable. But she does not demur when it is suggested that her fans, after watching Greg Norman tear up Birkdale at 53, might hope to see her again some day. Instead her scrupulous, sober demeanour dissolves into a giggle.
"There's a reason I didn't use the 'r' word," she admitted. "I said I'm stepping away from competition. And I am stepping away, for a while, there's no doubt. And then we'll see if I get the urge to come back. I don't know. I don't want to speculate."
It is not fair to press her, of course. She is being as honest as she can. How can she know, now, what the idea of a comeback might mean to a mother? Certainly, she would find it unpalatable to resume anywhere short of the summit. For the time being, anyhow, any regrets are leavened by relief.
"I feel very content," she said. "It's a decision I've thought about for a while, not something I came up with during a coffee break. This is something that really comes from the heart. I'm going to miss a lot of it, but what people don't see is what it takes to be here – the hard work I've done for so many years. When you stand there practising, and realise your mind's on other things, you know it's time to move on."
The roar for that Interlachen eagle still rings in her ears, and the galleries will again give an emotional timbre to every shot she addresses. But all these records in the women's game – 88 tournament wins, earnings exceeding $22m (£11.3m), a round of 59, a season mean under 69 – have been hewn from a clinical Swedish temperament.
"I want to leave on a high note, no doubt about it," she said. "But that's what makes golf so tough. It's a lot more mental than physical. Of course, you need a good swing, good feel, good muscle control, talent – all those things. But if you don't have the mental aspect, you can only get so far. It's all about controlling your emotions, thinking positive, believing. I think that's what separates great golfers from good golfers. You have to be focused, without getting in your own way. That's the beauty of this game. That's why it takes a strong person. You have to trust in your shots."
Formerly reticent, always reflective, she has sometimes seemed dispassionate to the point of coldness. "You have to act the way you are," she shrugged. "Maybe some people say: 'You don't show a lot of emotion.' But you ask me to show emotion, and I won't have control of my feelings. There are people out there who cannot be cool, who have to get it out. You just have to find what works for you."
So where does that ruthless purpose come from? Most golfers approach a tournament in the pragmatic hope of acquitting themselves well, and getting in the money. Sorenstam, like Tiger Woods, comes to win.
"Everybody has it in them," she said. "You just have to find it. In golf people get nervous, anxious – it's a matter of controlling it and using it to your advantage. With time, with experience, I've a better understanding of myself. I love the feeling of coming down the stretch, and I have to hit that great seven-iron, or make that ten-footer. That's what I live for."
The exasperations of golf are universal, of course. Not even Woods, not even Sorenstam, goes out there and shoots 18 birdies. But only Woods or Sorenstam sets out thinking that they might. "I believe in my mind I can have the perfect round," Sorenstam said. "I've been close a lot of times. I think it's important to set the bar really high."
That mentality has forged an authentic kinship with Woods, with whom she exchanges text-message repartee after Majors. "He's very competitive, I'm very competitive," she said. "I think we both try to learn, we both really stay in the moment, the concentration and focus is very similar. He obviously has things I don't have. Some of the power. He has a lot of different shots. In a way, of course I wish I had that, but I don't think anybody does."
Sorenstam will, of course, for ever be remembered for being prepared to measure herself against the men when accepting a sponsor's exemption for the 2003 Colonial tournament at Forth Worth, Texas – making her the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play a PGA Tour event. At first the experiment was gracelessly received by some of the men, and Sorenstam ultimately missed the cut, but not before winning round every witness to her endeavours.
"It was an amazing experience," she recalled. "I wouldn't trade it for anything, when I look back at my career it was just the highlight. People were converted in the end. I think they realised this was a historic moment in sports.
"Then, of course, everybody chimed in for different reasons. I didn't want to make it about men against women. I wanted it to be about golfers. I wanted to reach my potential. Because I'd really reached my peak then. I'd won 13 tournaments, and I was like: 'I want to learn more.'
"And, in that atmosphere, I did learn a lot. If you look at my record after that, I played very well. After putting yourself in the toughest position, you feel anything is possible. I was extremely nervous. I didn't want to let myself down. I didn't make the cut, but in my mind I know I can. That doesn't mean I want to do it again."
An obvious contrast suggests itself in the disintegration of Michelle Wie, whose jousts with the men have been reduced to chapters in some excruciating teenage melodrama. This week Wie, who has plummeted to 244th in the women's rankings, is making her eighth US Tour appearance in Reno, Nevada. "I really don't know why Michelle is continuing to do this," Sorenstam said. "I mean, we have a major this week, and if you can't qualify for a major, I don't see any reason why you should play with the men."
Sorenstam has always been far more than Wie was glibly presumed to be, and her legacy is guaranteed. Her ambition now is to give it practical substance. All her projects, promoted via her official website, are themed "Sharing My Passion". A year and a half ago, for instance, she opened the Annika Academy in Orlando, Florida.
"We have anything from one-hour to three-day packages," she explained. "If you want to come in for an hour, we can help with your short game. If you want to come in for three days we have packages for tying in fitness and golf. It's very authentic: these are the things I do, these are my coaches."
She is designing her fifth course, the Mines Golden Valley in Malaysia, having started out as one of the authors of the gargantuan Mission Hills complex in south China. "It's not easy, I'm still learning a lot, but I've had the opportunity to travel around the world and I've picked up things here and there," she said.
Then there is the Annika Foundation, which supports two annual scholarships for emerging Swedes, and a matchplay tournament for the top juniors in her homeland. "Because it wasn't that long ago that I was a young girl with big dreams," she said.
But now, seemingly, the goals are different, more personal. She seems content. For everyone else, however, the moment is elegiac. "I have so many memories," she said. "I've lived and slept golf for twentysomething years. It's taught me so much. It's taught me life. There've been tears, through victories, through defeats.
"The last hole at Lytham, to win the British Open – it was just incredible. Being European, this championship has always meant a lot. It was such a crucial tee shot. And I was able to put the ball on the fairway, make par, and win by one.
"But I will not miss the travel or the hard work. I love being in contention, but I have done it so many times. It's time to get back to the game, and I'm excited about that.
"From my perspective, I feel I have maximised my game. That's one of the reasons I feel good about leaving: I have reached my potential. I have reached the top. I'm satisfied, I'm content I don't have to do it any more."
Cups, cash and cooking Sorenstam factfile
Born: Stockholm, Sweden
Residence: Orlando, Florida
Debut win: US Women's Open, 1995
Career wins: 88, including 10 majors
Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame: 2003
Rolex Player of the Year Awards: Eight
US Golf Association Ambassador: June 2008
Lowest tournament round: 59 (first woman to break the 60 barrier), Standard Register Classic, 2001
Official career earnings: $22.3m (£11.3m)
Did you know ... that Annika is a keen cook? She has taken part in LPGA cooking demonstrations and has recipes on her website. You can watch her demonstrations at: www.rochesterlpga.com/webcast.cfm
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