The numbers are staggering: 72 LPGA victories, 89 wins worldwide and 10 major championships in 15 seasons with a record eight Rolex Player of the Year awards and six Vare Trophies. She was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2003, 2004 and 2005, years when Serena Williams won two U.S. Opens and a Wimbledon singles title, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and company won gold in the Athens Olympics and Maria Sharapova burst onto the scene. But Annika Sorenstam eclipsed them all. Annika also had three or more victories in 12 different seasons with eight LPGA wins in 2001 and 11 in 2002.
They are the kinds of mind-blowing stats you can’t read aloud without shaking your head and saying, wow, or at least offering a soft-slow whistle and an appreciative smile.
But as staggering as those numbers are, Annika isn’t known as Mrs. 10 Majors or Mrs. Six Vares.
She is Mrs. 59, a nod to the number and the round that changed everything.
By the time Annika showed up in Phoenix in March of 2001 for the LPGA Tour tournament that was then called the Standard Register Ping, she was already in a league of her own when it came to ball striking. Stories still abound about Ben Hogan’s combination of power and accuracy. Chi Chi Rodriguez claimed to have played 72 holes with Hogan where he hit every fairway and every green. Another story had Hogan practicing with a caddie shagging his shots. The caddie lost a ball in the sun and it hit him in the head, knocking him to the ground. Before the caddie could stand up, Hogan hit him in the head again – a yarn, maybe, but one with enough truth to be semi-believable.
No one needs to guess about Annika’s accuracy. People who saw it still remember.
“I’ve caddied since 1979 and I’ve never seen anyone that accurate,” said Terry McNamara, who was on Annika’s bag from 1999 until her retirement. “I lived 50 miles from her so every other day when we were home, I’d drive down to Lake Nona (in Orlando) for practice. I brought a catcher’s mitt to shag balls and from her wedges through a 6-iron, unless it was windy, I never had to move more than a step. One step right, catch it. One step left, catch the next one.
“One day I pulled a bench out onto the range and sat there with my catcher’s mitt while she hit pitching wedge. For 10 shots in a row, I never had to stand up or move on the bench. That’s how she practiced. She practiced accuracy. She practiced rhythm.
“I see people on the range today and they might be out there six hours but they’re talking half the time. When Annika went to work, it was work. We might only be there for four hours but there wasn’t any ‘How’s your mom?’ stuff. She dialed in and that was it.”
She was dialed in that week in Phoenix.
“That Friday, I was running a little late so I was out of sorts,” McNamara said. “When I got to the range, I realized that she was running late, too. So, she started warming up and it was terrible. I asked her what was wrong and she said she’d been running late and wasn’t focused on it yet. In the parking lot after the warmup, I said, ‘Hey, this is the important day. This (the morning part of the draw) is when we make up ground. Go to the clubhouse and let’s get our work right today.’ She went to the locker room, I went to the putting green, and we were off.”
“I was stuck in traffic, so I was kind of running around,” Annika said. “I teed off on the back nine, par-5 (10th), dogleg left. Made a birdie on the first and that kind of calmed me down. Then I birdied the second, and the third and the fourth. I said to Terry, ‘How many birdies in a row have you seen?’ He said ‘four.’ I said, ‘Well I’ve made six in a row before, so I know I can do that.’”
The number quickly became eight, as Annika’s first par came on the ninth hole of her round. Then the train rolled again as she turned onto the front nine and made four more birdies.
“I was playing with my sister (Charlotta),” Annika said. “It was really nice being out there with Lotta and Meg (Mallon).”
Another birdie at 17 and Annika stood on 18 needing only a par to make history. “It was a different kind of zone that day,” Annika said. “I remember those shots I hit and the putts I had. But it was like the game was easy.”
“I was a little jumpy, sort of like a pitcher on the verge of throwing a no-hitter,” McNamara said. “You’re doing your job but between shots you’re jumpy. On the ninth, there’s a pond about 220 (yards) out and then water wraps in front of the green. So, we hit less club off that tee (a 4-wood) and striped it down the middle. From there we had a number for a pitching wedge but she wanted to hit 54 (degree wedge) because she was so pumped up. There was a hillside left, which would have been a terrible up-and-down, so I said, ‘We’re going to hit this thing 10 feet right of the hole.’ She said, ‘Nope, I’m going right at it. I want to shoot 58.’ That’s totally her. Here I am wanting to hang onto history and she’s wanting to improve on it.”
Annika flew the 54-degree wedge 14 feet behind the hole and two-putted for a 59.
Next March it will have been two decades ago. And as of today, the record still stands. Annika remains Mrs. 59, the only woman to break 60 in an LPGA Tour event and a legend in so many other ways.
“It’s certainly a day I remember,” she said. “It’s one I will never forget.”