In a career where she became legendary for her consistent dominance, where she won 72 LPGA events and positioned herself as one of the greatest female players of all time, the defining moment of Annika Sorenstam’s career might have been a week where she missed the cut.
When she teed it up at the Bank of America Colonial in May of 2003, Sorenstam faced a shot that World Golf Hall of Fame member Dan Jenkins said may have had more pressure on it than any other in golf history. She was the first woman to appear in a PGA TOUR event since Hall of Famer Babe Zaharias did it in 1945.
The media scrutiny on Sorenstam that week was unlike anything she – or many others in the sport – had ever seen. There was a backlash to her accepting the tournament’s sponsor’s exemption. Some called it a publicity stunt and a sideshow.
"She's a machine. I've never played with someone over 18 holes that didn't miss a shot.” – Dean Wilson, Sorenstam’s playing partner at the 2003 Bank of America Colonial tournament on the PGA TOUR.
The attention and coverage transcended sports. The world was watching as she teed it up against the men of the PGA TOUR, the best players in the world. And like so many other times in her career, Sorenstam responded with the force of will and consistent shot-making that drove her to so many LPGA wins.
She was nearly flawless tee-to-green in her first round, but could not convert her many birdie opportunities on the way to a 71. She ended up missing the cut, but the world did not miss the point: Sorenstam made believers out of everyone with her steely nerves and class in handling such a uniquely difficult situation.
“Anyone who watched her has a deeper appreciation of women's golf,” said LPGA Tour player Lorie Kane.
By the force of her talent and need to test herself, the naturally shy Swede had come a long way from intentionally finishing second in junior tournaments to avoid giving an acceptance speech. In the end, Sorenstam’s fanatical competitiveness eclipsed her wish to avoid the spotlight.
With 11 wins in 2002, Annika Sorenstam tied Hall of Fame member Mickey Wright for the LPGA single-season victory record.
Sorenstam came to America to attend the University of Arizona, a decision she calls the turning point of her life. She won the 1991 NCAA individual title and after turning professional, was voted rookie of the year in Europe and then on the LPGA. Sorenstam announced to the golf world that she was could be a historic player when she won back-to-back U.S. Women's Open titles in 1995 and 1996.
But she did not rest. Sorenstam began work on a physical regimen that would revolutionize the women’s game. In an effort to increase her driving distance and become a more powerful player, Sorenstam began a five-day-a-week program with a personal trainer. Stories of her workouts, including push-ups with 50 pounds strapped to her back, became the stuff of legend.
And it worked. From ranking 26th on the LPGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 252 yards in 2000, Sorenstam improved to first in 2003 with an average of 272, while still hitting better than 80 percent of fairways.
From 2001-05, Sorenstam went on a historic run. She dominated the women’s game, winning 43 times and finishing in the top three nearly 70 percent of the time. In 2001, she became the first woman to break the 60 barrier, firing a 13-under 59 in the second round of the Standard Register PING. It remains the lowest round in LPGA history, and the scorecard is still displayed in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Despite winning three more times in 1998, Sorenstam, just 37 and third on the LPGA’s all-time victory list, abruptly retired from the game. Her focus was had changed to interests outside the ropes, like starting a family. She also began building the Annika brand. In true Sorenstam fashion, her empire now includes a golf academy in Orlando, a charitable foundation, a winery, a clothing line, golf course design, a financial group, and regular appearances on Golf Channel broadcasts.
Despite no longer dominating on the course, her celebrity endures. And the launching pad was one of the rare events she didn’t win; teeing it up at the Colonial elevated Sorenstam from LPGA superstar to global personality.
"Colonial was my mission," Sorenstam said after she announced her retirement. "It was my path, my journey and I felt like people accepted that, 'Hey she's an athlete, and she wants to get better.' I've always let my clubs do the talking. And I felt like people accepted me for that."