2001: Sorenstam looks ahead after season of excellence

Last winter, the golf world collectively wondered aloud when, or if, we’d ever see one player dominate the game over a single season the way Tiger Woods did in 2000.

We didn’t have to wait very long, did we.

In 2001, Annika Sorenstam won four of her first six starts of the season, became the first female professional to shoot 59 in competition, never missed a cut and finished in the top 10 in 20 of 26 events. She overcame a 10-shot deficit to win in Los Angeles, tying the LPGA mark for largest come-from-behind victory.

Along the way, Sorenstam also set records for 18, 36 and 72 holes, won her first major (Nabisco) since the 1996 U.S. Open, captured four consecutive tournaments, broke the LPGA’s single-season scoring record (69.42), was the first player since Nancy Lopez in 1979 to win as many as eight times in a season and became the first LPGA competitor to pass $2 million in season earnings.

Whew. Basically, Sorenstam did everything but exhale.

As for her encore in ’02?

“I’m not going to retire, let’s put it that way,” Sorenstam said, smiling.

Asked on the eve of last month’s LPGA season finale in West Palm Beach, Fla., if she had exceeded her own expectations, Sorenstam paused and said, “In some ways, yes. But in other ways, you know, I’ve set really high goals for myself. This was the year I decided to give everything, and I’ve got a lot of things back.

“I wanted to be the best player out here. I’ve achieved that – for at least a little while.”

It’s not as if Sorenstam had fallen off the face of the LPGA, winning seven times and finishing fourth and second, respectively, in earnings in 1999 and 2000. But she no longer was the player at the apex of the women’s game. Two years ago, the spotlight belonged to newcomer Se Ri Pak, and last year, it was monopolized by Sorenstam’s emerging rival, Karrie Webb.

Yet anyone who has the smallest inkling about the fiesty competitiveness of Sorenstam – who at age 31 already has won 31 times and qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame – knows being anything but No. 1 is a concept that does not sit well with her. She realizes that in order to achieve something great, there is work to be done in preparation, and she doesn’t shy from sweat when it comes to approaching her livelihood.

Sorenstam was 15 and living in Sweden when she decided to hastily cut short a session on the practice tee when rain began to fall. She called her father, Tom, and asked that he drive to the course and pick her up. So he did. On the way home, Tom Sorenstam turned to his daughter and said gently, “You know, there are no shortcuts to being good.”

She began to think about the others who had continued to hit balls in the rain.

“I knew what he meant,” she says. “It’s something I remembered.”

Sorenstam’s 2001 campaign might be the greatest in the history of the LPGA. Players have won more frequently (Mickey Wright, 13 titles in 1963), set longstanding scoring marks (Carol Mann’s 72.04 in 1968, a record that stood for a decade) and have been as dominant (see Lopez, 17 victories, 1978-79).

“Boy, if it’s not the best season, it’s not third-best, either,” said LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, who compares Sorenstam’s year most closely with Lopez’s rookie year of 1978, in which Lopez won nine times and didn’t finish out of the top 25.

But comparing eras in professional golf can be akin to comparing apples to acorns. Even those who watched Lopez overpower the LPGA first-hand in the late 1970s acknowledge today’s globalized fields offer a depth of talent the game has not previously witnessed.

“I think Annika has been amazing,” says LPGA Hall of Famer Betsy King, who arrived to the tour the same time Lopez did in the late 1970s. “Nancy played very well when she came out, but to win eight times in this competition is tougher to do. Annika’s statistics are incredible – her scoring average, her greens in regulation. . . . Nobody in the history of our tour has put up the numbers she’s been putting up.

“Those two (Lopez and Sorenstam) are very different. Nancy had so much charisma, and she had the crowds behind her to the point that every tournament was like a home game. I think she actually won a few tournaments because others choked in front of those crowds. . . . But playing against Annika is like playing against a machine. When she misses a shot, it’s hard to believe.”

Never was the machine more finely tuned and running so smoothly than in Phoenix last March, when Sorenstam, who has talked for years about shooting 54 for 18 holes, started her second round at Moon Valley Country Club with birdies on 12 of 13 holes. Sorenstam was playing with her sister, Charlotta, and Meg Mallon that day. As Annika putted out for her first par on Moon Valley’s 18th hole (her ninth) en route to 28, Charlotta’s caddie scribbled a note on a yardage book and flashed it in front of Mallon.

It read, “59?”

Answered Mallon, “Absolutely.”

“What impressed me most that day was that when she missed her only fairway, she knocked her next shot onto the middle of the green, made par and got out of there,” Mallon said. “Her mental strength is such a great asset. To birdie 12 of 13 holes, she wasn’t even surprised. She’s conditioned to do that. I mean, as a competitor, it’s tough getting your butt kicked like that. But pretty soon you realize you’re watching history.”

Of all her accomplishments in 2001, shooting 59 is the one Sorenstam treasures most. “I had 13 birdies that day and a few lipouts,” she said. “That was a day and a round I’ll never forget.”

Of course, somewhere out there in her future she is convinced a 54 is waiting to be shot. As Sorenstam proved this season, she’s inching closer to perfection all the time. And knowing her, she probably won’t be satisfied until she gets there.

Other highlights of the LPGA’s 2001 season:

Se Ri Pak rebounded from a winless 2000 to win five times, including the Weetabix Women’s British Open, a first-time major, and give Sorenstam a spirited run for LPGA player of the year honors.

Karrie Webb followed a huge season in 2000 by winning three tournaments, including two majorscq. The two main events Webb pointed toward at the beginning of the season – the U.S. Open and the McDonald’s LPGA – she won. In capturing the McDonald’s LPGA, she added the last piece to a career Grand Slam, becoming the youngest player (age 26) to achieve the feat.

Laura Davies posted one of the most popular victories of the season, winning the Wegmans Rochester International in June, her 20th LPGA title. She termed the triumph “the most important victory of my entire career.”

Wendy Ward set a 54-hole record for winning score in relation to par, shooting 21 under at the Wendy’s Championship for Children in New Albany, Ohio.

Seven LPGA players became first-time winners: Catriona Matthew, Wendy Doolan, Carin Koch, Heather Daly-Donofrio, Kate Golden, Gloria Park and Tina Fischer. Daly-Donofrio, Golden, Park and Fischer won in consecutive weeks.

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