2004: Perspective - Annika: Popularity times two

Schaumburg, Ill.

Annikapalooza, a year after Colonial, still has legs. Lots of legs, all shapes and sizes. Slim, sturdy, short, long, young, old, hairy, shaved, even tree-trunked.

This is a known fact because they were all lined up June 2 outside of the Golf Galaxy store in this western Chicago suburb of never-ending strip malls. They all came to stand before Annika Sorenstam, the top player in women’s golf. They came early and stayed late.

Her advertised special public appearance, co-marketed by Callaway Golf, ran from 5:15 to 7 p.m. Some fans, apparently possessing too much discretionary time, started showing up at 2 p.m. Three hours later, the two-deep line was 120 yards long. By the time Sorenstam left, 617 customers, about half female, had walked through the door.

That, of course, was good news for a store that normally attracts 30 or 40 patrons during that time slot on a typical Wednesday.

That 617 number should be good news for women’s golf, too. According to a Golf Galaxy spokesman, 275 people showed up to see John Daly the night before at the company’s Columbus, Ohio, store. And Charles Howell III attracted just more than 300 here last July.

All of which means the hero business appears to be in transition.

“Focus groups show that the athletic heroes of young females (18-25) always used to be males, like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods,” said Kyle Weiner, president of Callaway Golf Footwear. “But in the last year that’s changed as Annika’s become bigger because of her Colonial appearance and Hall of Fame induction. She’s been above Tiger (among young females, not counting blonde Swedish swimsuit models) the last 18 months. Recently it’s been Annika and Michelle Wie 1-2.”

Celebrity affects all of us differently. Some people are People magazine and “Entertainment Tonight” junkies infatuated with the rich and famous. Some in the great unwashed realize stars slide their khakis on the same way and couldn’t care less about Q-rated types.

Then there’s golf. The golf public tends to connect with top players and carries around its affinity for years. How else does one explain Arnold Palmer’s lasting attraction on Madison Avenue?

Sorenstam doesn’t have Palmer’s charisma or Woods’ commercial appeal, but she possesses a certain real manner not unlike that of the shy, cute girl next door. Her appearance here underscored that others have noticed the genuine nature that accompanies her rare ability.

Before she arrived, a man walked in and told a manager that his niece, a high school golfer, is dying of cancer. “She’s not going to make it,” the man said. “Annika’s her hero. Do you think Annika could write her a note?”

Mick McCormick, Golf Galaxy marketing chief, witnessed the exchange and shook his head.

“It’s amazing the power celebrity has and the positive impact it has on people going through tough times,” McCormick said.

Sorenstam hit drivers on a simulated range, did a couple of interviews, answered fans’ questions, put on a clinic, signed a few autographs and gave the winner of a drawing a private lesson in a net in the back. The first sign that she had slipped in the back door after fighting her way through Chicago traffic was applause from a few VIPs and store staffers.

She promptly went into the simulator and pounded a few drives that were measured for the Outdrive Annika Contest. The readout said one of her drives traveled zero inches, a sign of mechanical malfunction rather than a superstar’s ineptitude. Though WGN Radio golden throat Steve Cochran, the clever golf junkie who would emcee the festivities, did crack upon reading the screen, “I think she missed it. It’s a whiff. You don’t see that very often.”

Sorenstam changed simulators and maxed out at 266 yards, with a 251-yard carry. Seconds later, the doors opened and the masses flooded in. The guest of honor seemed surprised.

“I’m very flattered,” Sorenstam, in the area to play the Kellogg-Keebler Classic, said in front of the initial rush of 500, not counting five uniformed security officers. “I didn’t know that many people would be here. (Since Colonial) things have gotten so big. It’s so much more than I anticipated. It turned out to be so wonderful. If I can be a role model for one little girl or boy, it would be great.”

Quickly it became clear she is. Some 20 little girls sat in the front during the Q&A and clinic and heard her say things like, “I think there’s only one woman on our (LPGA) tour who uses a 2-iron” and “I jump rope in the parking lot at tournaments.” A couple of girls sat on someone else’s shoulders in the back.

After a while, a 7-year-old girl holding a Teddy bear was called on to ask a question.

Girl: “I was in the hospital when you wrote me a note on a picture. I have it here.”

What’s your name? she was asked.

“Annika,” she said.

The two Annikas – one a hero, one a wide-eyed admirer holding a stuffed bear – high-fived and posed for a photograph. It was a moment the little girl will never forget.

Annika Murrell came into the world with heart complications and was named after the famous Annika. She was a couple of weeks old when her father, Kelly, arranged to get Sorenstam’s autograph for his ailing daughter. Annika Murrell was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Her left ventricle was not developed in utero. She had three open-heart surgeries in her first two years.

Throughout her young, now-healthy life she has kept her autographed photo of Sorenstam framed in a special place. It is signed, “To Annika. Always be strong.” When Sorenstam plays on television, Annika Murrell often watches, even if she doesn’t play golf yet.

When her father told her recently that Sorenstam was coming here, the daughter got giddy. “We’ve gotta go,” she gushed. “We’ve gotta go.”

They went. They left happy.

“This is the best day of my life,” Annika Murrell told her father.

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