The legacy unfolded slowly but deliberately. Rolex Rookie of the Year in 1994; Her first LPGA Tour victory in 1995 – the U.S. Women’s Open, no less – along with Rolex Player of the Year and the Vare Trophy. But it was 25 years ago, when she won again at the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open, that Annika Sorenstam shouted her arrival. Now, after 13 years away, she returns.
There is an entire generation of fans – including her children – who’ve never seen Annika in an official LPGA Tour event. But that changes at the Gainbridge Championship Feb. 25-28, literally in Sorenstam’s backyard at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla. Those who love golf get a precious mulligan – the chance to see one of the best compete again.
“I am overwhelmed at the positive response to my deciding to play,” Sorenstam says. “Ava and Will are excited and are a big part of why I will do it. The members at Lake Nona have been really nice too, asking me nearly every day the past couple of weeks to play. I’m glad it worked out and I’m thankful there is a category for Hall of Famers, which I didn’t even know about.”
Sorenstam has not played a Tour event since stepping away after the 2008 season with 72 victories, including 10 major championships. She’s played in some celebrity tournaments – most recently the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions – and was the first woman to compete in the PNC Father/Son Challenge. But Gainbridge is her return to the LPGA.
“When I played at the Diamond Resorts and had to count my own ball alongside current LPGA players, I was surprised at how nervous I was,” Annika said. “I had been hitting it really well, but then rust appeared that week. I realized then that if I want to compete and do well in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open – if my schedule permits it – that I simply need more competitive reps.”
When Annika retired at 38 it was to create time for a family and turn her competitive energy to business and the ANNIKA Foundation. When she was No. 1, Sorenstam spent hours practicing and hours more working out. Now there simply aren’t enough hours in a day for that kind of routine.
“I suppose it’s all relative at this point in my life,” she says. “We work around our kids’ busy schedules. They’re at an age where we drive them around a lot, especially in the evenings with their sports. I try to practice and workout some while they are at school and between work and household duties. I’m used to ‘hit and giggle’ golf with Will or Mike for nine holes or less. I need to get reacquainted with the nuances of the entire course.”
From 1995 through 2008, Sorenstam was first in scoring eight times and second five. From 2001 through 2006, she played in 124 LPGA Tour events and won 46, taking eight majors in that six-year run. More than a dozen years after retiring, Annika still tops the career money list, despite the sharp uptick in LPGA purses.
Sorenstam retired with numbers the Tour may never see again. She is third on the all-time wins list with 72, trailing Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). But the closest to Annika among those whose career overlapped with her is Nancy Lopez with 48 titles, 24 behind her. Of those in Sorenstam’s era, Karrie Webb won 41 times.
Merely the gap between Sorenstam and Webb – 31 wins – would be a Hall of Fame career. For someone to get to 72, she would have to average six wins a year for a dozen years. That’s a big ask.
While the Hall of Fame exemption gets Annika into tournaments, she says: “I have no plans to play any other events at this time.” But the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn CC in Fairfield, Conn., July 29-Aug. 1 – she qualified when she turned 50 last October – is a possibility, even though her role as President of the International Golf Federation creates a conflict with the Olympics, where men’s golf is July 29-Aug. 1 and women’s Aug. 4-7.
“I’m honored to have my role with the IGF and take my responsibilities seriously, and obviously the Olympics is at the top of that list,” she said. “However, (IGF Executive Director) Antony Scanlan has been very supportive of me trying to play, so I’m hopeful I will be able to do both. He likes the idea of having an ‘active’ President.”
The U.S. Women’s Open was a centerpiece of Sorenstam’s career. When she won in 1995, it was a surprise. When she backed it up in 1996 at Pine Needles – hitting 51 of 56 fairways and winning by six strokes – it was clear she was not a flash in the pan. That her last major win was a third U.S. Women’s Open in 2006 – only Wright and Betsy Rawls won four – made a perfect bookend to a brilliant career.
All who love golf love having Annika back. Once again, we get to see that relentlessly repetitive swing; the quick head release; the shy smile and modest wave after a perfect shot. That we get to see Annika again already makes this a special year.