Unparalleled career

Sorenstam put her own brand on women's golf

On the LPGA

June 04, 2008|By RICK MAESE

Nearly two years removed from her last major - and three weeks since announcing her retirement - and still four months before her 38th birthday, Annika Sorenstam addressed the media yesterday, quaint and polite as ever. As she prepared for the final McDonald's LPGA Championship of her brilliant career, Sorenstam explained that walking away from the game was made easier knowing that she's leaving LPGA in good hands.

"I think the tour is as good as it's ever been," Sorenstam declared.

And though she's probably right, I'm not sure it really matters.

Predictions are generally reserved for the desperate and the foolhardy, but here are two things that wouldn't surprise me:

We might not have to wait long to find someone who can match and surpass Sorenstam's accomplishments on tour.

Even if that person is Lorena Ochoa (hint: it is) and she someday rewrites the LPGA's record book (hint: she very well might), she'll never be Annika.

It's an odd realization, one that's not fair to Ochoa and one that shouldn't reflect poorly on her either.

What made Sorenstam special was unique to her and can never really be duplicated. And I'm not referring to any one of her 72 LPGA victories or a single one of those 10 major championships. No, I'm referring to her unforgettable 96th-place finish at the Colonial, a pit stop on the men's tour but a cornerstone of Sorenstam's life. Never in the history of the game has missing the cut been quite so remarkable.

Asked yesterday to reflect a bit, Sorenstam conceded that she remembers the Colonial differently than she does her big LPGA wins. "When I look back at my career, I always think of the Colonial as definitely a highlight, but also a turning point in my life," she said.

A poignant description. Because without that appearance in the Colonial - without slipping on a pair of slacks and playing against the boys - her life and her career would be wholly different. Sorenstam very well might have found the same ridiculous level of success on the LPGA Tour. She still might have shot circles around her peers - posted that 59, earned eight Player of the Year trophies, won at least one major six straight years. But would most casual sports fans have ever taken notice?

Breaking the gender barrier - the first female golfer to do so since Babe Zaharias in 1945 - helped her transcend the sport. It introduced her to a universe of curious observers and put her on a first-name basis with even nonsports fans.

Discussing her plans yesterday, Sorenstam said in addition to focusing on family, she's looking forward to "building the Annika brand." No, it's probably not fair, but that brand doesn't exist if she didn't accept a special exemption into that men's tournament. With the Colonial, she's the female answer to Tiger. Without it, she might have had to settle for the name recognition of Karrie Webb.

(And truth be told, her game might not have been as good either. "It just felt like the pressure that I felt through the Colonial, nothing will ever compare to that," Sorenstam said yesterday. "I remember stepping up to a tournament after the Colonial and feeling like it was a piece of cake.")

Which brings us to Ochoa, who has simply lit the tour on fire, even as Sorenstam's flame has flickered at times.

Ochoa is as personable as Sorenstam. The cameras like her just as much. She attracts sizable galleries at each LPGA stop. And her game right now is the best the tour has seen since Sorenstam was in her prime.

Ochoa is just 26 years old and already has 23 tour wins. How many had Sorenstam won at that age? Only six. Plus, Ochoa will only get better. She finished in the top 10 at 21 of 25 tournaments last year and already has won six of the nine she has entered this year. A win at this weekend's LPGA Championship would be her third major in a row - a feat even Sorenstam never accomplished.

Ochoa first met Sorenstam at the 2001 Kraft Nabisco. Sorenstam had won the tournament, and as the low amateur, Ochoa received an award on the 18th green. The pair had their photo taken together - "Very nervous," Ochoa said - and that picture is still proudly on display in her family's television room back home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

"I will miss her a lot," Ochoa said. "She was my motivation for many years."

The two are the only women who've ever topped the world rankings since the system was introduced in February 2006. And now they have just a few more months of competition together. Highlight and twilight. Side by side.

"I wanted to be like her," Ochoa said. "I wanted to follow her steps."

If only that were really possible.

On the course, Ochoa can find similar success. She's that good.

Off the course, though, there will never be another like Annika.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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