Sorenstam's pioneering spirit wins top award

Swede who had the drive to take on the men at their own game caps a remarkable year by winning experts' accolade
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The Independent Online

A perfectionist more at home on the practice ground than coping with the trappings of celebrity. An introvert with the extrovert's flair for the dramatic in the heat of competition. It could be Jonny Wilkinson, but if anyone can appreciate what he is going through, bar the broken shoulder and the season ticket to Buckingham Palace, it is Annika Sorenstam.

Sorenstam won an astonishing number of tournaments in 2001 and 2002 but hardly anyone noticed. In May of 2003 she teed up in the Colonial tournament on the men's US PGA Tour and faced a media spotlight that does not even get shined on Tiger Woods very often. Like Tiger, she was now just "Annika".

She missed the cut but beat 11 of the guys. For all the attention that Sorenstam turned towards herself, and women's golf in general, she used the experience to take her own game to new heights. She won two major championships to become only the sixth player to earn a career grand slam.

Winning the Weetabix British Women's Open for the first time, after a number of near misses, she prevailed in an exciting final-day duel against Se Ri Pak in front of record crowds for the event at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

Then she led Europe towards only their third win in the Solheim Cup in front of nearly 100,000 compatriots in Sweden. Sorenstam won four of her five matches and generally rose to the occasion as the world's best player should.

There was more. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, won a sixth LPGA Player of the Year title and, playing against the men once again, finished second to Fred Couples in the Skins Game.

Sorenstam proved an overwhelming winner of the Golf Writers' Trophy for 2003, although the annual poll also saw plenty of votes for the European Solheim Cup team, the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team, who won a thrilling match at Ganton, and Ernie Els, the European Order of Merit winner.

Catrin Nilsmark's Solheim Cup team lost out for second place by only one vote but they, along with Garth McGimpsey's Walker Cup boys and Sorenstam herself, were given pathetically short shrift in the BBC's Sports Review of the Year last Sunday.

Sorenstam is the first woman from continental Europe to win the award as an individual but follows in the footsteps of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Sergio Garcia in being honoured by the Association of Golf Writers.

The best measurement of Sorenstam's impact comes from the LPGA circuit in the States. Tournament attendances were up eight per cent on the previous year and viewing figures for network television coverage were up by 13 per cent. An increase in prize money is guaranteed for 2004 and among sponsors whose contracts were up for renegotiation there was 100 per cent renewal.

"Potential sponsors are now calling us rather than not returning our calls," said Karen Durkin, the LPGA's chief marketing officer. "What Annika has done has lifted the profile of the sport all over the world. But we are fortunate to have a deep bench of talent, not just Annika, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak. We have the emergence of Grace Park, an unexpected winner of the US Women's Open in Hilary Lunke, a veteran like Beth Daniel having one of her best seasons and the promise of Michelle Wie."

Wie, now 14, will play in the Sony Open in Hawaii on the men's tour next month. As well as Sorenstam and the club pro Suzy Whaley ­ who also played on the regular tour in the States ­ Laura Davies, Pak, Wie and Sophie Gustafson all competed in men's events around the world.

Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner, had his tongue only slightly in his cheek when he said: "If we are helping some of the men's events with the presence of our star players, then we're happy to help. It doesn't marginalise the LPGA."

Sorenstam, who is taking a holiday before preparing for next season, says the memories of the Colonial will last forever but her main rewards came later. "I think it's the best year I've ever had," she said. "I played some great golf, I've taken my game to a different level, and I've had some wonderful experiences.

"The Colonial was the greatest thing that will ever happen to me. It was like a fairy tale and I didn't want it to end. I'll never forget the first shot on the 10th tee. But I want to win majors, so I look back on a year where I won two majors. The tee shot at the British Open on the 18th [on the final day when tied for the lead with Pak] I'll never forget. It's probably the best tee shot I've ever hit.

"I'd like to win a few more majors, for sure," she adds. "I feel like I haven't reached my peak yet. So I'm going to go hard again next year and we'll see what happens."

A grand slam has been suggested and given that in the two majors she did not win this year she was only a shot behind, it does not seem an outrageous suggestion. Scarily possible, in fact.