Sorenstam On Completely Other Level
By Ken Klavon, USGA
Cherry Hills Village, Colo. – Shades of Tiger Woods in 2000, Annika Sorenstam has been nothing short of dominant this season.
Already winning six times, two of which were majors, Sorenstam embarks on the third leg of the Grand Slam this week when she tees it up at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills Country Club. Sorenstam’s 62 career victories has placed her in rarified air, passing legendary players Louis Suggs (58) and Patty Berg (60) this year. Only Mickey Wright (82) and Kathy Whitworth (88) stand in her way.
Five consecutive years she has led the LPGA Tour in wins and she is well on her way to making it a half-dozen. Sorenstam has a realistic shot of surpassing her career-best 11 wins in 2002 and perhaps Wright’s LPGA record-best of 13 in 1963.
How dominating has she been? Dating to last August, she hasn’t gone more than two events without walking away with the trophy. Overall in her career, she’s missed just eight cuts, two of which came at the U.S. Women’s Open (1997 when she was going for three straight and 1999).
The 34-year-old entered the year as the LPGA’s all-time money leader, a cool $5 million ahead of two-time Open champion and fellow Hall of Famer Karrie Webb.
There’s really no secret to what makes Sorenstam tick. Her competitive flame burns hotter than a NASCAR engine. To quote Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis her mantra has been, "Just win, baby." With the victories, though, comes the elevated pressure and expectations, which is exactly the way she wants it.
"When you set a goal the way I did," said Sorenstam, whose first of two consecutive Open victories came 10 years ago just south of Denver at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, "this is to be expected. This is a great challenge for me and this is like I said: a true test for me to see if I can handle it."
With what she’s done, the inevitable question pops up. Has there ever been a modern athlete who has conquered his or her sport like Sorenstam? It depends on the criteria. On a statistical level, the NHL’s Wayne Gretzky has no peers. In terms of championships, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell might gain the edge. To a higher degree, Sorenstam should be measured against others in golf. Jack Nicklaus and Woods stand out. So, too, does Nancy Lopez. But outside of 1978-79 when Lopez burst on the scene with 17 wins, that doesn’t live up to Sorenstam’s grip. And Lopez never won the career slam, having missed at the Open.
The best comparison, however, might be to Woods’ year in 2000. En route to winning nine times that year, he captured three majors and broke or tied 27 PGA Tour records. More important, his mere presence made many feel like they were playing for second place before teeing it up.
"If you look at it closer, Annika has what Tiger had in 2000," said golf instructor David Leadbetter. "He had psyched players out before they even started playing."
Said LPGA Tour pro Cristie Kerr, who has five career victories: "I would say some players definitely are [intimidated]. … Ultimately you can only control your own game, so at first years and years and years and years ago, I probably was intimidated.
"Honestly, if you look at what Tiger did and what she’s done, I think she’s been a little more dominant through the years than maybe even Tiger. Tiger is amazing and on the men’s tour he was very dominant for a long time, but to win seven, eight, nine tournaments in a year is pretty incredible."
Sorenstam and Woods have been so intertwined that they struck up a friendship several years ago. Both have homes in the Orlando, Fla., area and they share the same agent (Mark Steinberg). Now it’s turned more into a friendly rivalry. When Sorenstam won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship two weeks ago, she sent Woods a text message that read ‘9-9’ to signify their equal number of major victories.
Last fall they worked on their short games together.
Players off and on the tour gush over her skill, determination and hard work. In many ways, she’s like Vijay Singh – a tireless worker who seemingly lives at the practice range. Last week at the U.S. Open, Singh walked out one night with those workers in charge of locking up the clubhouse.
"Yeah, we have a great friendship and one I certainly treasure because to see what she's doing out there, it's a lot of fun to watch because it's precise golf," said Woods at the U.S. Open. "Her focus, her determination, her preparation over the winter months, people don't realize how hard she works."
Sorenstam was equal in her praise, crediting Woods with helping her establish herself as "the player others want to emulate."
"I admire him very, very much," she said. "I watch him. I analyze him and I want to learn from him, and he’s been very, very helpful. He shared with me a lot of his secrets, a lot of his thoughts to the game, which has helped me a lot the last few years."
Several years ago Webb was her kryptonite. In many ways Webb had the upper hand in the rivalry. Then Se Ri Pak came along. Sorenstam pushed herself to get better. She trained. She focused. And now she’s executing. The other two, meanwhile, have struggled to regain their top form.
Until she falters on her own, there is no elixir, no magic potion that will take her down. In a lot of ways it smacks of Larry Bird at the 1988 NBA All-Star Game when he unabashedly muttered to the rest of the contestants, "Who’s finishing second?"
And unfortunately for the rest of the tour, more times than not when Sorenstam is in the field, it will be a case of who is playing for second.
Ken Klavon is the Web Editor for the USGA. E-mail him with comments or questions at email@example.com.