The moment Annika Sorenstam announced she was going to play in a PGA tour event, there was skepticism and cynicism.
Many said it was a joke, that she would back out from being the first woman in more than a half century to play in a PGA event, well before the opening round of the Bank of America Colonial Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. They said she wouldn't want to embarrass herself and her LPGA colleagues. The pressure would be too intense, too overwhelming.
But Sorenstam, the best female golfer in the world, refused to succumb to the pressure and the insults. She vowed she would go and become the first woman in a PGA event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias teed off against the men in 1945. She had to experience it, for herself and other women.
The expectations for the first round of the tournament had been building steadily. Vijay Singh withdrew, saying Sorenstam had "no business" competing against men. Nick Price, the defending Colonial champion, called Sorenstam's presence "a publicity stunt" and said she should have been forced to qualify for the event rather than being offered one of the sponsor exemptions.
It's May 22, 2003. Crowds stand five deep, straining against the gallery ropes along the fairway, jamming themselves inside balconies and sticking their heads out of windows three stories high in the red brick clubhouse overlooking the tee box where Sorenstam prepares for her first tee shot.
The buzz turns to virtual silence as Sorenstam takes her final practice swing before walking to the tee box. Out in the distance, breaking the paranormal silence, comes the famous golf shout: "Annika, you da man!" The crowd roars at the voice of encouragement, and Sorenstam breaks into a smile.
When the 32-year-old from Sweden is introduced at the 10th hole, another huge roar rolls down from the crowd, some of whom wear buttons that read, "Go Annika" or hold signs of support.
"This has been an incredible week in so many ways," she would tell the world afterwards. "I feel like this is almost more than I can handle. On the first tee I kept telling myself, 'Trust yourself; you can do it.'"
She stares down the fairway, whips her four-wood around in a blur and sends the ball hurtling straight down the middle of the fairway. Sorenstam bends her knees slightly then exhales, alleviating her nervousness. As the ball sails out of sight, the crowd erupts.
"The attention is much more than I ever expected," Sorenstam would say to the media afterwards. "I will always remember it. Always."
Under an intense microscope, Sorenstam proves she is not only strong enough to handle the immense pressure, but also the 7,080-yard course, the longest any woman has ever faced in tournament competition. Sorenstam slashes tee shot after tee shot straight down the fairways and hits green after green in regulation.
"She's a machine," Sorenstam's playing partner, Dean Wilson, would say afterwards. "I've never played with someone over 18 holes that didn't miss a shot. I just stopped watching. It was just automatic, I just looked up by the pin, or looked in the middle of the fairway, and she was there."
All day long, Sorenstam entertains the crowd. She smiles. She laughs. She jokes. She high-fives her partners and even fans, many of whom beg for her autograph. She is greeted and treated like a movie star.
Aaron Barber, a PGA Tour rookie paired with Sorenstam, tells the media afterwards, "I just got goose bumps out there. The crowds were so awesome. She proved a lot today. I know a lot of people were skeptical and said, 'Well, she can't play our courses,' but she was awesome."
Her revolutionary entrance into the PGA empire is a welcome departure from the negativity associated with golf's gender-mixing experience that played out just a few months earlier at The Masters amid police and protesters.
The normal swirling Texas winds that often turn The Colonial into a severely treacherous course are calm on this day, and even though Sorenstam ignites the day's festivities, she nevertheless struggles throughout the round on the greens, unable to judge the speed.
Her short game suffers further because when she gets nervous, she loses the feeling in her hands, often resulting in her leaving putts short or zipping them past the hole. She misses a 5-foot attempt for birdie at No. 16, for instance, that would have moved her to 2-under par. She three-putts for bogey at No. 5, and completes her round by three-putting for bogey at No. 9, hitting her first putt, a 27-footer, 10 feet past the hole before missing the putt coming back.
Overall, she shoots well enough to have a birdie chances on all 18 holes, but she manages to nail just one birdie, winding up with 15 pars, two bogeys and a one-over-par 71. "I was tentative all day," she would later say.
She misses her goal of an even-par round of 70 and winds up tied for 73rd among the 114 players. She signs her card and departs the scorer's tent, accompanied by nine uniformed security guards.
She misses just one fairway all day and averages 269 yards off the tee, tying her for 84th in the field. However, she ties for first in driving accuracy. SShe winds up just one shot behind Price.
"I was nervous all day," she would say later. "It never went away. So I'm very happy the way I played. It was a great day. It was more than I could ever have expected."
The next day, Sorenstam shoots a 74 and misses the cut. She thanks the fans and the players on the PGA Tour. She says she does not hold a grudge against any player or person who claims she didn't belong. She says she simply hopes that she had been a role model for young girls who have dreams of following in her path.
"I came here to test myself. I'm proud of the way I was focusing and proud of the decisions I made and that I stuck to them. And that's why I am here. I wanted to see if I could do it."
She says she is grateful for the chance to play on the men's tour, even though she says she wouldn't do it again. But by the time she leaves town, after 36 holes and 145 shots, Sorenstam is the hottest story in golf.