2002: Player of the Year - What next?

Orlando, Fla.

For years we have listened with varying degrees of skepticism as Annika Sorenstam waxed philosophically about Vision 54, the close-your-eyes mental imagery painting the perfect round of golf: Eighteen greens in regulation, 18 putts, 18 birdies – something previously accomplished only in a child’s PlayStation game.

Sorenstam, ever the determined, stubborn sort, is convinced this is something she can accomplish in the real world, a grandiose concept she has cultivated since her days as a fledgling player on the Swedish National Team. The vision is more about the method than the madness of shooting such a pie-in-the-sky number. It allows Sorenstam, the only competitor in LPGA history to shoot 59, the ability to free herself of the limitations that shackle most earthlings on a golf course.

Simply enough, where most ask “Why?” she has the uncanny ability to ask, “Why not?”

“Annika,” explains former Arizona teammate and current LPGA member Leta Lindley, “has always had a unique gift of looking outside the box.”

And now, just as our comfort level with this shooting star and her august aspirations have permitted us to even fathom such a concept, along comes this mischievious Swede with a new wrench to hurl into the machine.

How about the Perfect Season?

It’s early December, a week after Sorenstam has procured her 11th LPGA victory of 2002 – her 13th worldwide – and she is seated at a table in the corner of the downstairs grill at tony Lake Nona Club in Orlando, running her finger down a copy of an LPGA schedule showing her week-by-week results: First place, LPGA Takefuji Classic. First place, Kraft Nabisco Championship. First place, Aerus Electrolux USA Championship. First place, Kellogg-Keebler Classic. First place, Evian Masters . . . you get the idea.

A few of those weeks that didn’t end in victory ended with close calls. She threw away a tournament in Phoenix with a closing 76, and was clipped at the finish at the U.S. Women’s Open only when Juli Inkster fashioned a sterling 66 on Sunday. In 23 LPGA starts, Sorenstam finished in the top 3 in 17 events, or 74 percent of the time. She added victories in Australia (over Karrie Webb) and Sweden (over Laura Davies and Sophie Gustafson), missed one cut and finished out of the top 10 only two other times.

In the process, she redefined the boundaries of excellence on her tour – or any golf tour, for that matter. Remember, golf, as Bob Rotella tells us, is not a game of perfect.

“That’s probably as good as it gets, and probably ever will be,” says Sorenstam, who turned 32 in October. She studied the numbers. “This is incredible. But I look at myself and say, ‘What can I improve?’ ”

A year ago, on the heels of winning eight times, there seemed to be precious little space for upward mobility. Or so we thought. She knew differently. Sorenstam is like the cat that spends hours upon hours chasing its tail in a never-ending quest: She was driven to regain her position as the top performer in women’s golf three years ago, and now that she’s there, she finds herself working just as diligently, maybe harder, to stay there. The circle never ends.

And now, after she has played three encores and all the lights in the arena are turned up, we can only imagine what she might have in store in 2003.

How high can Annika go?

“Her accomplishments are, at times, incomprehensible,” LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw says. “The question is already percolating: Is Annika the best ever? . . . History will write its own version of the past two years, or this year, with Annika. In the present, it’s pretty impressive.”

Says Inkster, “I’ve run out of things to say about her. She works hard at it. It’s not like it comes easy. She puts her heart and soul into it. As far as desire, determination, overall power, strength . . . she’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

Adds another Hall of Fame member, Judy Rankin, “I know in watching how Annika does it, one thing is clear: You never think it’s because she got lucky.”

Sorenstam fell shy in her late-season charge to equal Mickey Wright’s mark for LPGA victories in a season (13), but broke or tied 20 LPGA records. Most impressively, she knocked more than a half-shot off her own standard for scoring average, lowering it to 68.70, more than a shot better than Se Ri Pak. Her $2,863,904 in earnings also established a new benchmark.

As a rule, golfers either drive it long and miss a lot of fairways, or hit a lot of fairways and drive it shorter. Of course, Sorenstam is the exception: She finished fourth in driving distance (265.6, an increase of 20 yards over 1999) and fifth in fairways hit (80.3 percent). She led the tour (again) in greens in regulation (79.7 percent). And she pared her putting from 30.38 putts per round (which ranked 100th in 2001) to 29.66 putts per round, which tied her for 39th.

In climbing from 31 to 42 career LPGA victories, consider this lineup Sorenstam passed on the all-time list: Pat Bradley, Beth Daniel, Betsy King, Patty Sheehan, Carol Mann and Babe Zaharias. She is tied with Sandra Haynie, and JoAnne Carner (43) and Nancy Lopez (48) are next in her sights. Sorenstam’s last touchstone to join these players in the Hall of Fame – 10 years on the LPGA – will be fulfilled in November.

Sorenstam plans to spend a good bit of her offseason recharging on the ski slopes of Lake Tahoe, but don’t think she hasn’t sneaked a peek toward 2003.

“I believe if I can win 11 times in one season, then I should be able to win four tournaments, and that should be the majors,” she said. (That’s right, folks, we’re talking Grand Slam.) “Nobody has ever done that on any tour, but I believe I can do that. That’s my next challenge.”

As superb as her season was on the golf course, Sorenstam may have been even more impressive someplace else – in the gym. Following a disappointing 1999 campaign in which she finished fourth on the LPGA money list, she took a long look at her career and where it was headed. In addition to fixing her putting, something she addressed with the help of Dave Stockton and extra hours on the practice green, she wondered what added strength and flexibility might do for her game.

“I always try to get the right equipment – the right shaft, the right loft – so what if your body is not the right body? What if you can’t turn properly?” she asked. “The body is the thing that swings the club. So I’ve got to work on that as much as I’m working on everything else.”

Sorenstam does nothing in life half-heartedly, so it’s no surprise she has become the second coming of Charles Atlas. Whereas not long ago she was bench-pressing a 45-pound bar with no weights, she now is hoisting 150 pounds. She kickboxes and performs

stability exercises on medicine balls. And there are days when she does so many dumbbell curls she feels she’s about to throw up or faint. Her trainer claims she has untapped only 70 percent of her strength.

Swingwise, the added muscle has helped Sorenstam become more consistent in the downward swing path of her longer clubs – 6-iron and lower. She also has gained length, which in turn allows her to attack courses more aggressively, reaching par 5s she never before reached in two. In the final round of the ADT Championship, at the 169-yard 17th hole, which is surrounded by water, Sorenstam looked at the perilous back pin, took out a 7-iron and whistled a shot to 3 feet. Birdie. A year ago, she’d have had a 5-iron in her hand and been resigned to hit a more conservative shot.

Mentally, her improved physical conditioning also has produced many dividends.

“It’s not just the golf,” she says. “I learn a lot about myself. I see good results, I get excited and get more motivated. I think a lot of golfers are afraid (to work out). But to be the best out here, you have to do things that nobody else is doing.”

Sorenstam spends 6-8 hours per day either on the golf course or in the gym, and that goes along with 10-plus hours of sleep each night (“I need my beauty sleep,” she says, grinning). Admittedly, golf is her life, and Sorenstam is surrounded by a team that allows her to keep singularly focused: her husband, David Esch; caddie, Terry McNamara; agent, Mark Steinberg of IMG; and coach, Henri Reis. Or, as Sorenstam jokingly refers to them, “My superhusband, supercaddie, super-agent and supercoach.” A supertrainer, Kai Fusser, has been added to the mix.

“She runs it like a corporation, but in a fun way,” says McNamara, who has been on Sorenstam’s bag since fall 1999. “People think she’s very serious, very stoic, but it’s just that she’s very good at focusing.

“It starts to hit you that you’re witnessing history here. I think of the greats I’ve seen: Lopez. Carner. Sheehan. Inkster. Bradley. King. And this girl, she’s Michael Jordan.”

To some of Sorenstam’s peers, her single-minded dedication to her sport seems a little over the top.

“I’ve always seen myself as a really ambitious person, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone as ambitious and driven as she is,” said Webb, who won 13 times in 1999-2000, but “only” five times to Sorenstam’s 19 the past two seasons. Webb marvels at Sorenstam’s ability to contend every week, but adds, “Obviously, any of the 29 other players in this field (at the ADT) would love to have had the year that she’s had this year. I’d like to do it my own way, though. . . . I wouldn’t want to change the way I’ve been in the last seven years and make golf something you live, eat, sleep and breathe.”

Sorenstam, who counts only a handful of golfers among her closest friends, candidly says her mission at the course is collecting trophies, not friends. Mainly that’s because she doesn’t know how much longer she will compete. She is 32, and she and Esch have talked at great lengths about starting a family. No offense to the LPGA’s working moms, but traveling to Tucson or Toledo hauling clubs, a couple of baby seats, a stroller and a few dozen diapers doesn’t seem to be a concept that interests her.

Clearly, Sorenstam is beginning to see an end to her playing days. Having never won a significant junior crown in Sweden, she once wondered if she could win a single LPGA event. That changed when she won the first of two U.S. Opens in 1995. Sorenstam giggles when she says she asks people who knew her 15 years ago if they thought she might become a special golfer one day. Not one can honestly say they did.

So one day, she’ll try her hand at something else, having made her mark on golf. She has an interest in the stock market and in real estate, and an endless fascination with cooking. When she couldn’t find a noted culinary school that fit into her offseason schedule, Sorenstam volunteered for duty in the kitchen at Lake Nona – a multimillionare apprentice, working three days per week, six hours per day.

Watch out, Emeril Lagasse.

Baseball great Ted Williams once said he wanted people to pass him on the street and say, “There goes the greatest baseball hitter who ever lived.” When Sorenstam walks away for good, perhaps in as soon as two years, she said she won’t require such veneration.

“It would be nice if they knew I was a golfer,” Sorenstam said, laughing. Then she paused. “I’d want them to say that she loved what she did, she had a lot of sportsmanship and she was good. She won a lot of tournaments.”

Perhaps they’ll also remember her for the best single season in LPGA history. Then again, with Sorenstam, perhaps the best is yet to come.

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