You can crunch the numbers yourself or let Annika Sorenstam--the
most unassuming of superstars--analyze them for you. She's done
it anyway. On the LPGA tour last year she hit 80.3% of her
fairways, which would have ranked her second on the PGA Tour.
She hit 79.7% of her greens in regulation, which would place
her first among the men. You'd think she'd have no trouble
going head-to-head with the men. The numbers lie. The truth is
that compared with your garden-variety PGA Tour players--your
Skip Kendalls, your Heath Slocums, your Fred Funks--Sorenstam's
golf skills are inferior. Her approach shots, by men's
standards, lack height, spin and shape. On the PGA Tour, even
with her newly developed strength, she'd be short off the tee.
Driving the ball about 265 yards, she'd be at least 35 yards
behind the long knockers. She's the best female golfer in the
world, but by PGA Tour standards her putting and chipping are
mediocre and her bunker play is worse. In May she will compete
in an elite PGA Tour event, the Bank of America Colonial, in
Fort Worth, Texas, playing the fabled Colonial Country Club
course from the same tees as the men. At the end of the week
her apparent shortcomings may prove meaningless. Jack Nicklaus
expects her to make the cut. Phil Mickelson thinks she could
finish as high as 20th. There's one reason why they might well
be correct: Sorenstam has the best head in golf. Way better
than Phil's. Better than Tiger's. She has a head for golf that
brings to mind Nicklaus in his prime, or Ben Hogan, who won
five times at Colonial, in his.
"She makes almost no mistakes," says Meg Mallon, an LPGA stalwart
who won the U.S. Women's Open when it was played at Colonial in
1991. "Part of what makes Tiger exciting is that he misses
fairways, he misses greens, then he plays recovery shots that are
just mind-boggling. Annika's not like that. She drives it in the
fairway, knocks it on the green, then either makes the putt or
doesn't." It isn't thrilling, but it's deadly. Nick Faldo, when
he was winning majors, played precisely the same way.
Sorenstam is a modest 32-year-old Swede--married, no
children--who lives in a gated golf-course development in
Orlando, in the shadows of Disney World and Tiger Woods. Woods
cannot go to the popcorn stand at the neighborhood multiplex
without causing a ruckus. Sorenstam, a knapsack on her back,
makes her rounds to the local gourmet shops (she wears the apron
in her house) mostly unnoticed. Woods and Sorenstam share an
agent and are friendly, but their demeanor on the course can be
very different. Woods could flatten his caddie with one of his
fist pumps. When Sorenstam makes a great shot, you might see her
raise her right hand almost to shoulder height and wave mildly.
She's a golfing machine who grew up with Bjorn Borg as a sporting
hero. Like the Swedish tennis star of yesteryear, she has deep
reserves of reserve. "I like to let my clubs do the talking," she
says. At one word per shot, that would have been 68.7 words per
round last year (an LPGA scoring record), none of them fighting
words. Sorenstam has nothing resembling a rivalry with her
closest pursuers, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Juli Inkster. That's
one of the reasons the LPGA is treading in a sporting backwater.
You'd struggle to find a dominating athlete who has done more and
been less celebrated for it than Sorenstam, which has something
to do with why she is playing the Colonial. She's not looking for
attention; she's looking for a new challenge. But her chief
advisers--husband David Esch, who follows his wife's every shot,
and Mark Steinberg, her IMG agent--are eager for a larger
audience to see her stuff. "There are plenty more people on the
planet who know about Annika now than there were a month ago,"
Steinberg said last week. "After Colonial there will be countless
more. It's bittersweet that it took her accepting an invitation
to play in a PGA Tour event for people to take notice of her. Her
42 LPGA victories should have been more than enough."
February 24, 2003
How many people know that in 2001 and '02 Sorenstam was the most
dominant golfer in the world? The editors at Golf for Women
magazine; the players on the insular LPGA tour, including
Sorenstam's younger sister, Charlotta; Sorenstam's parents in
Sweden, Gunilla and Tom. And that's pretty much it. Sorenstam
played in 49 LPGA events in those two years and won 19 of them.
Woods played in 38 PGA Tour events in that same period and won
10. In 1996, when she won her second consecutive U.S. Women's
Open, Sorenstam looked like a schoolgirl, with number 2 pencils
for arms and straight, fine sun-bleached hair spilling out
playfully over the top of her visor. She says that as recently as
two years ago she would not have been ready to play in a PGA Tour
event. But over the past 26 months she has reconfigured her body
through a grueling weightlifting, running and stretching regimen
that includes as many as 1,000 sit-ups a day. She's a different
player today, longer (some 20 yards on average off the tee than
she was in 1999) and more aggressive when she needs to be. Now
she looks built for battle, with industrial-strength arms, the
thighs of a sprinter and wraparound shades that keep out TV
cameras and opponents.
Over the years she has developed a simple philosophy. She will
not show up at a tournament unless she thinks she can win it. She
has devoted her life to winning golf tournaments and has at times
frustrated LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw and spurned tournament
sponsors by so resolutely adhering to that credo. She will take
it to the Colonial, in an event played May 22--25 on an
old-fashioned par-70 finesse course measuring a pitch shot over
7,000 yards (box, opposite), just as it did in Hogan's day. She
calculates that there are only a handful of courses on the PGA
Tour schedule where she could compete. The Colonial Country Club
course was on her shortlist, even though it's about 10% longer
than the courses she typically plays on the LPGA tour. "I'm going
to approach the tournament the way I always do," she said last
week. "I stay in the present. I don't think much about what the
other players are doing. If I play well, things will fall into
She regards the Colonial as the "fifth major" on her '03
schedule. The other women's majors are the Kraft Nabisco
Championship, which Sorenstam has won twice; the Open, which she
won in '95 and '96; and the LPGA Championship and the British
Open, neither of which she has won. Last year the only cut she
missed was at the British, the tournament she most wanted to win.
Sometimes--rarely, but sometimes--when she wants something too
much, she tries to be too perfect and gets tight. In other words,
she's human. Sooner or later all golfers crack. It's what makes
the game so interesting. Woods shot a third-round 81 in a driving
rain at the British Open last year, thwarting his Grand Slam
hopes. It happened to Sorenstam at the '97 Open, where she missed
the cut trying to win her third straight national championship.
The PGA Tour has never been known as a den of liberalism, and
until recently many people didn't realize women were allowed to
play in Tour events. But in 1945 Babe Zaharias competed in the
Los Angeles Open, shooting rounds of 76 and 81 to make the
36-hole cut. She shot a 79 in the third round but missed the
54-hole cut in a tournament won by Sam Snead. The Colonial, like
most PGA Tour events, has only one cut, after two rounds. Last
year the cut was 143, three over par. Nick Price, at 45, not long
with the driver but still a fabulous shotmaker, won by five
strokes with a score of 13-under 267. He earned $774,000. (Twice
last year Sorenstam took home a career-high check for $315,000.)
When Meg Mallon won at Colonial in '91, she shot one-under 283 on
a course that measured 6,340 yards but with thicker rough and
narrower fairways and harder greens than what Sorenstam and 125
or so of her golfing brethren are likely to find in May. After
her win Mallon never thought about what she might be able to do
against the guys at Colonial. But these are different times for
the ladies. Suddenly, and for the first time since the Nancy
Lopez glory days of a quarter century ago, women's golf is on the
front page, and not just of the sports section.
First came Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National Golf
Club, home of the Masters. In July he issued his bizarre public
missive defending his club for having nothing but fellas on its
membership roll. He said change would not come to Augusta
National "at the point of a bayonet," and all of a sudden people
were talking about Sandra Day O'Connor's golf game and whether
the U.S. Supreme Court justice would be a suitable first woman
member at the club.
Next came Suzy Whaley, a Connecticut teaching professional who
qualified for the '03 Greater Hartford Open, on the men's Tour,
by winning a PGA of America section championship in September. In
that event, and in accordance with the rules then in place, she
played from tees that made the course 10% shorter than the one
the men played. Since then the PGA of America has adopted a rule
stating that women must play from the same tees as the men if
they seek to qualify for a PGA Tour event. Still, Whaley played
her way into a Tour event--Sorenstam received a sponsor's
exemption--and she plans to play.
Last month 13-year-old Michelle Wie attempted to qualify for the
Sony Open in Hawaii, a PGA Tour stop. She shot a one-over 73,
which tied her for 47th in a field of 96 men--good enough to make
all of golfdom pay attention to her and her stated goal: to play
the PGA Tour. This kid's not messing with the ladies' tees. She's
thinking way outside the box.
Then there's Sorenstam, coming off one of the most successful
years in golf history. At a press conference in late January she
was asked if she would accept an invitation to play in a PGA Tour
event. "In a heartbeat," she said. Within days several tournament
directors were making offers.
The Colonial was not among them. In fact tournament director Dee
Finley told reporters that Sorenstam would not be invited. He
didn't say this, but there were Colonial members who didn't want
a woman playing their hallowed course, already under assault by
PGA Tour players with their graphite shafts and titanium drivers
and thermonuclear balls. Sorenstam and her people had other
ideas. Steinberg called Finley, telling him that Sorenstam had
determined that Colonial fit into her schedule and that the
course suited her game. The agent then called Dockery Clark, Bank
of America's point person for the tournament. Clark thought
inviting Sorenstam had nothing but upside for her company. Still,
Clark left the decision in the hands of Finley and his fellow
Colonial officials, who asked themselves, "What would Hogan
think?" They decided Hogan would be cool with the idea, reversed
themselves and extended the invitation. Immediately afterward
committeemen started calling Colonial members, asking them not to
criticize the decision publicly. But they didn't get to
"I'm a traditionalist, and I'm opposed to this because I think it
takes away from the luster of the tournament," says one longtime
member, Jerre Todd. "Colonial doesn't need something like this,
and I'd be shocked if Mr. Hogan would have supported this."
Every golfer in Fort Worth who's over 60 is an expert on Hogan.
And then there's Dan Jenkins, who knew the man well. "I think he
would be in favor of it because he would recognize the uniqueness
of the situation and the athlete and the great attention it will
bring to Colonial and Fort Worth," the writer says, sounding like
a dues-paying chamber of commerce member. Then, truer to form,
Jenkins adds, "Of course it will be a media circus." Which raises
the key question: How will Sorenstam's game respond when she is
scrutinized in ways she never has been before?
When the PGA Tour players gathered last week at Torrey Pines,
near San Diego, for the Buick Invitational, they found themselves
talking about a rare subject in their circles: the LPGA in
general and an LPGA player in particular. Mainly, there was
support for Sorenstam, but not in every corner. "It's an issue
that she'll be taking a spot from somebody who's trying to earn a
living," said Fred Funk, who makes his fine living just the way
Sorenstam does, by hitting exceedingly straight tee shots.
Woods was more cautious. "I think it's great she's playing, but
it will only be great for women's golf if she plays well," he
said. In 2001 Woods and Sorenstam were partners in a prime-time,
made-for-TV event in which they defeated Karrie Webb and David
Duval. Sorenstam played poorly that night. Maybe, under klieg
lights, she was trying to be too perfect on a big occasion. "If
she goes out there and puts up two high scores, then I think it's
going to be more detrimental than good," Woods said.
To which Sorenstam responded, "That's Tiger's opinion."
You have to know Sorenstam to know how she meant that. Usually,
those words are tart: That's his opinion. Not with Sorenstam. She
speaks English fluently but without an American's edge. Twelve
years in the U.S. and marriage to an American haven't changed her
much. Certain things that are just plain American--materialism,
celebrity worship, dinner out every other night--she finds
appalling. Some people, male sportswriters in particular, want
her to be provocative or charismatic or fascinating. She is none
of those things. She's planned and programmed, details of her
every round logged into her laptop. In November she will be
inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and she'll play the
LPGA tour in '04 and maybe a few stops on the PGA Tour as well.
She'd like to reach 50 tour wins, two more than Lopez retired
with. After that, all bets are off. She says she could walk away
from the game, have children and spend her days hanging with them
and cooking and studying the stock tables on her computer. She
admires the LPGA players who tour and have children. She says she
could not do that.
"People want to mold me into Nancy Lopez," Sorenstam said in
November. "She's a great example of the perfect athlete: somebody
who can perform, who smiles, who has charisma. You name it, she
has it. I would love to have what she has. Hopefully, I have
other qualities. I do what I do. I love what I do. I try to make
women's golf as popular as possible."
Until now her methods had been quiet. In '02 she showed up at
Interlachen Country Club, outside Minneapolis, one day before her
European teammates for the Solheim Cup, the Ryder Cup for women.
She wanted to practice. She was told she could not, that she was
too early. So she put her clubs in the car without a temper
tantrum, drove to another club, Hazeltine National, and asked if
she could practice there. The club was happy to have her. Before
long a crowd had gathered to watch her. She put on her usual
exhibition of straightness. When she was done at the range, she
signed autographs, chitchatted with the members, won over a bunch
of new fans.
Last November, Sorenstam was playing in the LPGA's season finale,
the ADT Championship, held at the Trump International Golf Club,
in West Palm Beach, Fla. Sorenstam was desperate to win the
tournament because it would give her 13 wins for the season, 11
on the LPGA tour, two on the European tour. In 1963 Mickey
Wright, the golfer Hogan said had the best swing he ever saw, won
13 events, all LPGA tournaments, the tour record for wins in a
year. A win wouldn't give Sorenstam a piece of the official
record, except in her mind, but that was enough for her. Donald
Trump, who played in the pro-am with Sorenstam, followed the
Swede up and down his man-made hills. For any serious golfer,
watching Sorenstam's golf up close is mesmerizing. She swings
like a metronome, straight up and down, with perfect timing. Of
course she won.
"Don't you think," somebody asked Trump, "she could do more to
sell herself?" Sorenstam is an attractive woman, but her clothes,
her body language, her overall look are almost willfully bland.
Normally, the real-estate mogul devours such questions. He is an
expert salesman: bright lights, waterfalls, short-skirted
cocktail waitresses at his casinos. Not this time. "That wouldn't
be Annika," he said. "Her whole thing is to be the best golfer
she can be. That's what motivates her. She's not interested in
anything that gets in the way."
That includes close personal relationships with her fellow
golfers. She has friends on tour, mostly fellow Swedes, but she
hangs out with nobody, including her sister. "In the six years
I've been out here, we've never had a meal together," says Rachel
Teske. "She and David do their own thing. She's perfectly
pleasant, but who her friends are I couldn't say."
Still, the LPGA sisterhood is behind Sorenstam as she sets her
sights on the Colonial. They figure it can only do their tour
In a sense her invitation to play in a men's event has been years
in the making. Sorenstam has always watched the men on TV and has
often wondered how her game measures up. Last year she was at the
Masters as a spectator, although she played the course once from
the back tees and shot 74. In 1996 Sorenstam attended the PGA
Tour event at Torrey Pines, the same tournament won by Woods on
Sunday. In '96 she was the reigning U.S. Women's Open champion,
but as she strolled along among hundreds of golf fans, not a
single person seemed to recognize her. She watched Davis Love
III, who would ultimately win the tournament, play a hole. He
skied his drive, topped his second, holed his third for an eagle.
She shook her head. "My goodness," she said, "they hit some very
poor shots." Those guys are good but far from perfect.
Now she's three months away from making her PGA Tour debut. She
knows she doesn't have to be perfect to make a good show of it.
If she does what she can do--drive the ball straight, knock it on
the green, minimize her mistakes--she'll be right there with the
big boys. She'll show the fellas what a woman with a will, an
opportunity and 14 sticks can do. She'll leave the talking to the
men in the booth.
She has the best head in golf. Way better than Mickelson's.
Better than Tiger's.
She'll be the first woman to play with the men since Babe
Zaharias in '45. She's not looking for attention; she's
looking for a new challenge.