Dominance In Disguise

That shy smile you see? Don't be fooled. The remarkable and relentless Annika Sorenstam is taking aim at a record sixth straight tour victory--and at every other LPGA mark
May 08, 2005

Everything Annika Sorenstam has done so far--the decade of straight shots and unwavering excellence--will soon be little more than a great first act. Her round of 59. Beating the boys, some of them, at Colonial. Changing her body from schoolgirl-skinny, with No. 2 pencils for arms, to strapping, with cannons for legs. (All gym, no steroids, she says.) Changing her persona from that of a shy, modest Swede to that of a poised, global one-name star. Racing up the career-wins totem pole (goodbye Babe Zaharias, goodbye Joanne Carner, goodbye Nancy Lopez) until she has found herself, at the prime age of 34, fourth on the LPGA's alltime list, with 59 tour wins, plus a dozen more overseas.

Act II is the 2005 season. It began for Sorenstam in March, when she played three times and won three times, the third victory coming in the California desert, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, the first of the LPGA's four majors. This week she'll play at the tour stop in Williamsburg, Va., the Michelob Ultra Open. When she wins that event (an outcome predicted by a Hall of Fame swami, identity below), Sorenstam will have triumphed in the last six LPGA events in which she played, including the two tournaments she won in November, in Japan and at Donald Trump's course in West Palm Beach, Fla. (The Donald, long and crooked off the tee, can't get enough of Annika's monotonous down-the-middle drives.) The only other female golfer to have won five straight is Lopez.

Then comes the Summer of Annika, in which Our Gal Sunday wins the three remaining '05 lady majors: the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Open in June, and the British Open in July. The Nabisco victory was Sorenstam's eighth career major. Our swami says that Annika will have 11 by the end of the year, and the only player she'll then trail in that category will be the legendary Mickey Wright, who has 13. The next milestone after surpassing that will be Kathy Whitworth's record for career titles: 88. Kathrynne Ann, now 65, is a very nice woman, but guess what? She's going down. Says who? Why, the Swami herself--K.A.W.

Swami says, "She could have an off week and not win, but if she's playing well, nobody beats her. I don't see her losing any tournament. For her to win the Grand Slam this year, I think that's very realistic. Annika has the emotional control you need to win. She's never going to let a single mistake ruin her day. If my 88 wins can give her some motivation, I'm glad. She'll pass me in three years, maybe two."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Eighty-eight was not on Sorenstam's To Do list. The plan--and Sorenstam is an all-world planner--was for Annika to get inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame at the end of 2003, have a monster year in 2004, then say au revoir to tournament golf and start producing munchkins with her husband, David Esch. More than once she admitted that she was too much of an obsessive to be both a tour player and a mother.

But then life, in all its messiness, intruded. Given what we know now about Sorenstam's 2004 season--in which she won eight LPGA events, including the LPGA Championship, and had two more wins abroad, all while her marriage was falling apart--it was her most astounding year yet. For the seventh time in her 11 seasons on tour, Sorenstam was the leading money winner, earning $2.5 million--5.8% of the total LPGA purse of $43 million. Viewed that way, she was more dominant on her tour than Vijay Singh (who was so dismissive of Sorenstam two years ago when she announced she would play in a PGA Tour event) was on his. Singh's $10.9 million in winnings represented 4.3% of the PGA Tour's $252 million total purse.

Murmured secrets are part of the daily conversation on the tour, as they are in any insulated society; last year many LPGA players knew there was trouble at the Sorenstam-Esch home in Orlando. But Sorenstam revealed nothing. Then, near the end of the season, with the biggest tournaments over and the official process in motion, she announced, by press release, that she had filed for divorce.

"As important as her golf is to her," says Sorenstam's longtime caddie, Terry McNamara, "and her golf is very, very important to her, her marriage to David was even more important to her. Trying to save her marriage, that was her main goal last year. So what she did on the golf course, as distracted as she was--it's hard to even imagine it."

Sorenstam's parents, Tom and Gunilla, have been married for 39 years, and Annika always expected her union to endure. She still won't talk about what went wrong in her eight-year marriage to Esch. Some of their differences were apparent to close observers. Esch seemed far more enamored of having multiple homes, expensive cars, long nights in restaurants and bars while on the road--of living la dolce vita, LPGA-style; Sorenstam, who dislikes excessiveness of any sort, was much more comfortable at home, preparing gourmet meals in her kitchen. Still, Esch, who didn't respond to an interview request, was a constant by her side and her most trusted adviser, a scratch golfer who understood the game and the burdens of tour life. He helped manage Callaway's relationship with Sorenstam as a consultant. "I definitely miss him," Sorenstam said, simply and briefly, last week. "It's a big change."

Lopez, who had a brief first marriage at the height of her fame in the early 1980s, knows what Sorenstam endured in 2004 and for some time before that. "I'm a perfectionist and so is she," says Lopez, who has been married to Ray Knight, the former major league player and manager, for 22 years. "You want your golf to be perfect, you want your marriage to be perfect. She was trying to walk around last year like nothing was wrong, but I saw it in her face, the pain. It's the embarrassment of being a failure at something you want so badly to do well. I saw her get mad at shots in ways I'd never seen before."

Sorenstam's long Tuesday-afternoon practice rounds, during which she regularly plays alone, often turned into four-hour therapy sessions, with caddie and player downloading to each other the state of their lives. "He's a great friend," Sorenstam says of McNamara. "We have a lot to talk about." For years the Sorenstam inner circle on the road consisted of Sorenstam, Esch and McNamara, boarding a private plane together one Sunday night after another, often with a trophy in hand; last year it became just caddie and player, sometimes just player.

Now Sorenstam is three tournaments and four months into the rest of her uncharted life. The divorce is taking its slow legal course and her relationship with Esch seems civilized. They are both members at the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando and saw each other last week on the practice tee there, when Roger Cleveland, a Callaway club designer, was working with Sorenstam on a lob wedge he is making for her. In the meantime, Sorenstam is spending time with her younger sister, Charlotta, a struggling LPGA player; with old friends, most of whom have no connection to golf; and with newer ones, including Tiger Woods's Swedish wife, Elin. Annika and Elin recently went diving together and attended a NASDAQ 100 tennis match. Woods and Sorenstam, who share an agent, have been practicing and playing together at Isleworth, the Orlando development where Woods lives. Struggling with a certain bunker shot, a frustrated Woods gave Sorenstam his lob wedge, right out of his bag, and for more than a year now Sorenstam has been carrying 13 Callaway clubs and one made by Nike. "We have these little contests," Sorenstam says of her golf with Woods. "We'll say, 'Hit it here, hit it there, closest to the pin.' It's inspiring. I love watching him hit balls."

If Sorenstam wins this week, she'll have 60 career wins, tying her with Patty Berg, and the only LPGA players ahead of her will be Wright, with 82, and Whitworth, with her 88 (chart, left). Wright, with her picture-perfect swing, is widely regarded as the best woman player ever, achieving all she did in only 12 full seasons and parts of 14 others. (Whitworth had 33 full seasons.) Wright, whose early retirement, incredible insight and complete withdrawal from professional golf made her as intriguing a figure as the game has ever produced, has never met Sorenstam, although they've exchanged letters. She's impressed with Sorenstam's determination, revealed to Wright by how dramatically Sorenstam changed her build, but less impressed with Sorenstam's competition. "She has everybody out there scared to death," Wright says, "which is a shame." Wright sees one player who is not intimidated by Sorenstam: Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old amateur from Hawaii, for now only an occasional LPGA visitor.

But Wie's father, B.J., says Michelle is not interested in taking on Annika. "Michelle has made it clear she wants to be a full-time PGA Tour player," he says. "Her impression of Annika is that she has extraordinary concentration. But she is not interested in being another Annika Sorenstam on the LPGA Tour. She has been watching Tiger."

Maybe someday Michelle Wie will go 5 for 5 on the PGA Tour, but until then, in the modern golfing pantheon, there's Tiger, there's Annika, there's Vijay--and that's really it. Everyone else is a work in progress.

All three are the same player, really, finding their answers in the dirt of the practice range, in the beeping heart monitors of their high-tech gyms and in the half foot between their ears. They'll let an outsider get only so close, and you can hardly blame them.

Nancy Lopez is prepared to see her piece of the consecutive-wins record fall this week. "But I'll always say mine was better," Lopez says, lightly. "I was a rookie, I was a baby, I didn't know what I was doing."

Annika knows what she is doing. ■

MIXED RESULTS

With a victory in this last week's Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill, Annika Sorenstam will not only break Nancy Lopez's record of five straight LPGA wins but also tie Patty Berg for third on the women's career victory list.  Here's how the winningest LPGA and PGA players stack up.

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  PLAYER CAREER MAJORS WINS
1. KATHY WHITWORTH 1959-91 6 88
2. MICKEY WRIGHT 1955-80 13 82
  SAM SNEAD 1937-79 7 82
4. JACK NICKLAUS 1962- 18 73
5. BEN HOGAN 1937-70 9 64
6. ARNOLD PALMER 1955- 7 62
7. PATTY BERG 1950-80 15 60
8. ANNIKA SORENSTAM 1994- 8 59
9. LOUISE SUGGS 1950-84 11 58
10. BETSY RAWLS 1951-75 8 55
11. BYRON NELSON 1935-67 5 52
12. BILLY CASPER 1955-80 3 51
13. NANCY LOPEZ 1977- 3 48
14. WALTER HAGEN 1914-35 11 44
15. TIGER WOODS 1997- 10 43
  JOANNE CARNER 1970- 2 43
17. SANDRA HAYNIE 1961-2000 4 42
18. BABE ZAHARIAS* 1950-55 10 41
Footnote: *Won 10 other tournaments before inception of the LPGA in 1950
COLOR PHOTODARREN CARROLL/ICON DRIVE FOR FIVEIn the Kraft Nabisco, Sorenstam roared to an eight-shot victory--the third in her current streak. COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr. FLYING SOLO Despite the strain of a marital breakup, Sorenstam has tightened her grip on the game. B/W PHOTOART SHAYWhitworth (right), in '68, with Sandra Post.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)