Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player were to be in the White House on March 23 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But like many things in most of the world, that ceremony was put on hold. Memories, however, run uninterrupted.
I was also supposed to be at the White House, invited by Annika. That honor unleashed in me an avalanche of memories covering a remarkable career that burst into bloom 25 years ago.
When the 1995 LPGA season began, Sorenstam was 24 and had yet to win on the LPGA. She was coming off a Rolex Rookie of the Year effort, but no one could have anticipated what was to come.
Like Jack Nicklaus, whose first PGA Tour victory was the 1962 U.S. Open and last was the 1986 Masters, Annika bookended her career with greatness. The first of her 72 LPGA Tour wins was the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open and she won the last two LPGA Tour events she played before announcing her retirement from competition.
Think of this: Annika averaged five LPGA Tour wins a year for her career. How many players have even one five-win season? Twelve years after retiring, her $22.6 million in career winnings is still tops.
Annika’s 82 LPGA wins trail only Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). But no player whose career began in the last 60 years is closer than 24 wins – Nancy Lopez with 48. And of those in the Annika Era, the closest is Karrie Webb with 41.
Patty Sheehan, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Pat Bradley, Juli Inkster and Amy Alcott had between 29 and 35 wins; Lorena Ochoa 27, Se Ri Pak 25, Inbee Park and Cristie Kerr 20. No one may ever again win 72 times on the LPGA Tour. And with her international victories, Annika has 89 titles.
The first time I saw Annika win in person was the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open. In all, for either The Associated Press or Golf World, I covered 32 of her victories and eight of her 10 majors. The 2003 season was as much fun as I’ve had as a journalist.
That season was part of a run from 2001 through 2006 in which she won 46 of her 124 LPGA Tour starts, including eight majors. In 2003, she played a PGA Tour event, won majors at the KPMG Women’s PGA and AIG Women’s British Open, where she completed the career Grand Slam, led Europe to Solheim Cup victory in her native Sweden and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. I was there for all of it.
The turning point in my professional relationship with Annika came in 2002. I wrote an article she didn’t like, and she reacted by ignoring me for several days. Finally, I confronted her on the range after a practice session and insisted we talk.
She made some great points and I stood by my story. “I’m sorry if what I wrote hurt your feelings, but I’m not sorry about what I wrote,” I said. “I believe it.” Two months later I was in her Orlando home gathering stuff for a Golf World story. We built a relationship based on trust and honesty.
From then on, when I wrote a complimentary story it meant more to her. She knew I meant it because she also knew I wouldn’t hesitate to be critical. I tell that story to young players as an example of how to interact with the media. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship.
Annika’s way of saying, “This is off the record” was to say to me: “You’re not a reporter now, right?” Those who know me know that if my black notebook is in my pocket we are just chatting and that I would never report on a private conversation. Annika understood that better than any athlete I’ve known.
On Wednesday before the 2008 Michelob Ultra Open she told me that on the following Tuesday she would announce this was her last season as a competitor. She said she’d give me an exclusive interview on Sunday night after the tournament so I could have a story in Golf World on Monday before the announcement but that I was to say nothing until then.
What ensued was one of the most incredible performances I’ve seen, especially considering the emotions that must have been inside her.
Annika was near-perfect – a synopsis of her career. She shot 64-66-69-66 to win by seven strokes and break the tournament record by five. That Sunday night, in a secluded corner of a not-yet-open dining room, speaking in a voice that never once indicated a shred of doubt in her decision, Annika said to me: "It was like old times, wasn't it?"
Like Sandy Koufax, who quit baseball at 31 after winning 27 games in 1966, or Jim Brown, who left football at 29 following an MVP season in 1965, Annika walked away on top at 38. But in not breaking her ties with the sport she dominated, she was more like Bobby Jones, who retired at 28 after winning the Grand Slam, then went on to co-found Augusta National GC and the Masters.
Annika started a wide-ranging business, created a foundation and has been a tireless advocate for junior golf, women’s golf and the overall growth of the game.
"Golf has taught me a lot about life, about making decisions," Sorenstam told me that Sunday night at Kingsmill. "I want to help the game, use the game and be part of the game. There are a lot of things I can do with my knowledge and my excitement and energy -- [for example] golf in the Olympics, who knows what I can do there?"
What she did there was help get golf into the 2016 Olympics through a 2009 vote by the International Olympic Committee she helped influence.
When Annika was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2003, she ended her speech with these words:
“After I played Colonial, Ron Sirak, a golf writer and a friend said, ‘Annika can no longer be looked at as a female golfer, now she is simply a golfer.’ Truly, that is all I ever aspired to be.”
Annika has far exceeded her aspirations. She is more than a golfer: She is a business woman, a philanthropist, an advocate and a pioneer. Before Drive On was a thing, Annika was in the driver’s seat. I’m glad I was along for the ride.