Sorenstam returns to Colonial: 'memory for life'
Annika Sorenstam never noticed the famous Wall of Champions by the first tee.
AP Golf Writer
Annika Sorenstam never noticed the famous Wall of Champions by the first tee.
The last time she was at Colonial, there were so many people she couldn't see much beyond the grass in front of her. There was so much pressure on her that Sorenstam could barely breathe. She was so emotionally exhausted after missing that cut that when LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw called to congratulate her, she could barely speak.
Sorenstam was the first woman in 58 years to compete on the PGA Tour, and the time was right. She was No. 1 in the world by a mile. She was coming off a season in which she won 11 times and set or tied 20 LPGA records. The year before that, she became the first woman to shoot 59.
She returned to the storied club in Fort Worth, Texas, for a Golf Channel documentary on the 10-year anniversary of her playing against the men. Colonial was closed that day, adding to the eerie feeling of a walk back in time.
"It was very different," Sorenstam said. "I was used to seeing a sea of people. The wall on the first hole? I didn't know that was there."
Even more surprising were the two guys waiting for her - Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber, chosen in a blind draw to play alongside Sorenstam the first two rounds in 2003. They were brought in for the documentary, only no one told Sorenstam about this.
"They were like, `Hey, we're looking for a third,'" she said with a laugh. "We went through so much together. It was a memory for life."
Suzy Whaley, who qualified as a club pro for the Greater Hartford Open, was supposed to be the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play on the PGA Tour. That changed with one comment before a small group of reporters during the PGA Merchandise Show in January 2003.
Sorenstam was at Bay Hill for a Callaway Golf outing. She talked about Whaley being "very brave" for playing Hartford that summer. She talked about a 13-year-old from Hawaii, Michelle Wie, who shot 73 in her failed attempt to Monday qualify for the Sony Open the week before.
That's when Jeff Shain of the Miami Herald asked Sorenstam if she would ever consider trying to Monday qualify on the PGA Tour.
"I haven't thought about qualifying," Sorenstam replied. "If I got an invite, I would say yes in a heartbeat."
Mark Steinberg, her agent at IMG, recalls leaving that news conference and walking with Sorenstam out to her car.
"I remember with such clarity saying to her, `Do you realize what you just did?'" Steinberg said. "You've got to remember, Annika was very naive, in a good way. She smiled at me in a way where she knew she lit a pretty big firestorm. But neither of us knew how big it was going to be."
Three weeks later, they accepted an invitation to play Colonial, an historic course on the PGA Tour landscape that was more about position than power.
Sorenstam began gearing up for the biggest week of her career. She was about to compete against the best players in the world, and the Swedish star prepared by practicing with the best of them all - Tiger Woods.
"I played with her quite a bit at home," Woods said. "She was playing so well at the time. She was winning everything. Her confidence was high, and I thought what she was doing for the sport of golf and for women was absolutely incredible. It took a lot of courage to do that and to put herself out there on a limb like that, and put her out there in front of the world to critique, criticize and anything in between."
There was criticism, most notably from Vijay Singh, who said he hoped she would miss the cut. In the weeks leading to Colonial, Steinberg was getting interview requests from Time magazine to People magazine to "60 Minutes."
"That's when I started to say, `This isn't going to be big. This is going to be transcendent,'" he said.
Laura Neal was working for the LPGA Tour as a media official and was assigned to be a liaison for Sorenstam at Colonial. Neal thought Sorenstam was getting a lot of attention for winning on the LPGA. Then she arrived at Colonial, where 583 media credentials had been issued - nearly five for every one player in the field. Neal was watching the local news from her hotel room on Monday and couldn't believe what she saw.
"They were covering her arrival as if it were the Grammy's," she said. "There were 50 or 60 cameras at the clubhouse. She arrives at our tournaments all the time and no one notices."
Sorenstam couldn't escape no matter how hard she tried.
"I never got through the main entrance," she said. "It was always through the kitchen. On Monday, it was laying on the floor of the van through a side gate to the driving range. I remember opening the door and there were a lot of people. I had no idea. Everybody was so interested. I didn't foresee all that, and maybe that was a good thing. I was just there to learn from the best and see how I handled it."
In her eyes, this was never about proving women could hold their own against the men. This was about Sorenstam chasing her own dream, setting her own challenge.
The pairings typically come out Tuesday afternoon. Wilson and Barber received a phone call that morning. They were told they were in the same group with Sorenstam, and asked if they could come to the media center.
Barber became a father only a week earlier, and he went to Colonial thinking he'd at least get some sleep.
"I got the call on Tuesday morning and ... it was a like a crazy dream," said Barber, now a financial adviser in Minnesota. "Within three hours of my agent landing in Dallas, I had a three-year bag, shirt and hat deal. I'd like to attribute that to my six straight missed cuts.
"I had no idea what it was going to be like, and I don't think she did," Barber said. "I remember on the first hole she said, `I'm really sorry to bring you guys into it.'"
Wilson picked up a button that said, "Go Annika" that cost $3 and wore it to his press conference. When the tournament began, he put the button on his pineapple head cover. He never saw his pairing as a distraction, rather an opportunity.
"I was looking forward to it," Wilson said. "I was as curious as anyone. I got to play with the women's No. 1 player. I wanted to see her talent, in a tournament. And I had a front-row seat. ... She performed great, and the pressure was immense."
It was so great, and there had been so much hype leading into Colonial, that Sorenstam stopped putting in the minutes before her tee time. She remembers turning to caddie Terry McNamara and saying, "What have I gotten myself into?"
"I was extremely nervous," she said. "I wasn't nervous about the tee shot, just the whole thing. I don't even know how I kept the ball on the tee."
But she drilled that 4-wood down the middle of the 10th fairway. Sorenstam putted for birdie on every hole (four times from just off the green). The only time she stood in a bunker was to stand behind the hole to read a putt. She opened with a 71, a respectable score, and followed with a 74 to miss the cut.
And just like that, Sorenstam was gone. She never played another PGA Tour event. That was never the plan.
"It wasn't the results, it was the journey leading into it and the week," Sorenstam said. "I learned so much about myself. That was important. I got tougher, stronger. I learned that it's OK to follow dreams and do the things you're not used to doing."
Sorenstam won 72 times in her Hall of Fame career, including 10 majors. She was LPGA Tour player of the year eight times, and the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average six times. And yet to the average sports fan, she is best known for playing against the men at the Colonial.
She laughs at the idea that what brought her the most attention is missing a cut.
It was much more than that.
Sorenstam returned to the LPGA Tour and won the very next week. She won the Women's British Open that summer to complete the career Grand Slam. She had won 43 times and four majors in roughly 10 years going into Colonial. She won 39 times and six majors in the five years after. And then she retired at 38, still in her prime, wanting to find the next challenge.
Today, Sorenstam is raising two children and running a business enterprise, which includes the "Annika Academy" in Orlando, Fla. She makes regular appearances on Golf Channel. She plays tennis. She takes the kids swimming.
Her two days at Colonial brought more attention to the LPGA Tour in the short term, though it also led to more women trying to take on the men - Whaley that summer, Wie the next four years, Se Ri Pak in Korea, Sophie Gustafson in Japan and Isabelle Beisiegel, who tried PGA Tour qualifying school.
Sorenstam never wanted to be a pioneer. She wasn't out to prove anything to anyone but herself.
"I think she gained out of it what she wanted," Barber said. "She wanted to see where she stood. She didn't have aspiration to play other events. Once she got there, it wasn't about the score. It was about being there, taking it all in. She wanted to play well, but that became secondary. It was a life experience. For all of us."