She was so painfully shy when we sat down to do an interview in Palm Springs at the end of 1995. Her eyelids fluttered when she spoke, her squeaky voice flecked with uncertainty, and when Annika Sorenstam confessed that she’d intentionally lost tournaments as a junior to avoid the trophy ceremony -- addressing a crowd of any size was much tougher than controlling a golf ball -- one might have sensed the young lady wasn’t wired for the rigors of competing on a public stage.
As it turned out, of course, the bashful blonde from Sweden turned into a winning machine. Sorenstam’s wire-to-wire, eight-stroke triumph last Sunday at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open was a stark reminder of how great a player she was, and for that matter, still is. If you’ll pardon the mixed-gender reference, she manhandled a Brooklawn CC course set up to the usual USGA standards, missing just 10 greens and making a mere six bogeys on a layout that yielded nine rounds in the 60s all week.
Sorenstam had three of them. “It was kind of different,” old foe Laura Davies told Golfweek, “but it’s still the same Annika. She beat the hell out of us.”
Thirteen years after walking away from the LPGA to start a family and a new life, Sorenstam’s performance added another a layer of credence to the notion that she’s the most dominant golfer of all time, male or female. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods obviously are in the discussion. A strong case could be made for the late Mickey Wright, who piled up 13 major titles from 1958 through 1966 and won 82 tournaments overall.
Before we dive into the numbers, let us first acknowledge the uncanny similarities between Wright and Sorenstam. Both were uncomfortable with the massive attention heaped upon them and the spotlight in general—neither added an Ickey Shuffle to their routine as a proclamation of their brilliance. And like Ickey Woods himself, neither stuck around for very long. Wright’s days as a full-time player ended when she was just 34, due primarily to foot problems and an aversion to flying.
Ben Hogan said she had the best golf swing he’d ever seen (watch it below). Imagine Sinatra asking you for voice lessons.
Wright’s career lasted 15 seasons; Sorenstam’s LPGA tenure was of identical length. After winning Rookie of the Year honors on the Ladies European Tour in 1993, Sorenstam set up shop in the United States (she’d spent two years at the University of Arizona), where it didn’t take her long to get busy. She was a back-to-back U.S. Women’s Open champion by age 25, then won the tournament for a third time in 2006. Wright was 24 when she successfully defended her national championship in 1959 at Churchill Valley CC in Pittsburgh. She would collect four Women’s Open titles overall.
Any self-respecting male chauvinist will tell you that comparing Wright and/or Sorenstam to Nicklaus and/or Woods is pure blasphemy, but facts are facts, ladies and gentlemen:
Career victories and majors for Annika Sorenstam, Tiger Woods, Mickey Wright and Jack Nicklaus
Sorenstam: 72 LPGA victories in 307 career starts (23.5 percent).
Woods: 82 PGA Tour victories in 368 starts (22.3 percent).
Wright: 82 LPGA victories in 372 starts (22 percent).
Nicklaus: 73 PGA Tour victories in 586 starts (12.5 percent).
As for the majors:
Wright: 13 victories in 50 starts (26 percent).
Sorenstam: 10 victories in 57 starts (17.5 percent).
Woods: 15 victories in 87 starts (17.2 percent).
Nicklaus: 18 victories in 161 starts (11.2 percent).
It’s certainly worth noting that Nicklaus’ numbers are watered down by his astounding longevity, which amounts to a triumph in itself. He played in more majors than Sorenstam and Woods combined. He participated in almost twice as many events as did Annika, which underscores the difference between greatness and dominance. Greatness smiles on those who remain relevant decade after decade—the mighty few who become ceremonial golfers long after their prime has ended.
Dominance, however, might be defined as an extended period of unparalleled superiority, and both Woods and Nicklaus had a couple of fallow stretches in their careers. Tiger spent a majority of the 2010s on the shelf, absent from the competitive arena while tending to personal and physical issues. Fat Jack basically took a hiatus at the end of the 1960s, returning as a slimmed-down, fired-up carnivore with an updated coiffure and a whole lot of winning in his crosshairs.
In 2008, the year Sorenstam retired, she won three times. Like Wright, she wasn’t bludgeoning fields on a regular basis by that point, but she wasn’t ceremonial, either. Nicklaus, meanwhile, played in 133 tournaments after his final victory—anybody remember the 1986 Masters? As for Woods, it’s a wait-and-see game, and could be for a while.
So, is Sorenstam the Duchess of Dominance? In addition to those 72 LPGA trophies, she won 17 times in Europe. Those fields might not have measured up to the depth of quality she beat in America, but Wright’s career was dotted with “official” victories at tournaments which included a very limited number of contestants. There was no such thing as a Solheim Cup when Mickey ruled the earth, but that doesn’t mean Sorenstam doesn’t deserve bonus credit for her sparkling 22-11-4 record in the biennial team matches.
Woods’ seven-year stretch without missing a cut is tantamount to Joe DiMaggio getting a hit in 86 consecutive games, not 56, but Sorenstam missed nine cuts in her entire career. Four of them occurred during her rookie season in the U.S. She missed a total of two cuts in 181 appearances during the 2000s. From 2000 through 2005, Annika accumulated 48 wins in 126 starts, a 38.1-percent clip that ended with her winning 10 of 20 in ’05.
She’s the only LPGA player ever to shoot a 59. In 2003, she became the first woman since Babe Zaharias (1945) to play on the PGA Tour. Although her 71-74 at the Colonial failed to get her to the weekend, Sorenstam had proven a point with resounding emphasis. She was real, real good. And real, real gutsy.
Eight money titles, eight Player of the Year awards, six Vare Trophies for the LPGA’s lowest scoring average—the bashful blonde from Sweden can rest her case as golf’s most dominant player ever on the elementary premise that she won more tournaments in fewer starts than anyone, including Mickey Wright. And one of the coolest things about it is, Annika Sorenstam just keeps on winning. So much for that public-speaking phobia.
Annika Sorenstam's career, at a glance
- Won 72 tournaments in 307 starts on the LPGA Tour. Her 23.5 career winning percentage is the highest of any player, male or female, at the game’s highest level.
- Collected 10 major titles in 57 starts.
- Won 17 times on the Ladies European Tour.
- Named the 1993 Rookie of the Year in Europe and 1994 Rookie of the Year in America.
- Named LPGA Player of the Year eight times.
- Won LPGA eight money titles.
- Claimed six Vare Trophies for lowest scoring average.
- Compiled a 22-11-4 record in eight Solheim Cups.
Annika Sorenstam's majors
Annika Sorenstam has won 10 majors in her career, beginning with the 1995 US Open. Here is the complete list:
- 1995 U.S. Women's Open
- 1996 U.S. Women's Open
- 2001 Nabisco Championship
- 2002 Kraft Nabisco Championship
- 2003 McDonald's LPGA Championship
- 2003 Weetabix Women's British Open
- 2004 McDonald's LPGA Championship
- 2005 Kraft Nabisco Championship
- 2005 McDonald's LPGA Championship
- 2006 U.S. Women's Open