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Is There No One On This Planet To Even Challenge Her?

4/15/2009

Her shorts on this Thursday morning are a color Crayola calls Spring Green, a shade that almost perfectly matches the short grass-tees, fairways and greens here at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md. Her shirt, again according to Crayola, is Olive Green, which just happens to be the same color as the first cut of rough. It's the opening round of the LPGA's second major of the year, the McDonald's LPGA Championship Presented by Coca-Cola, and Annika Sorenstam, the best player in women's golf, the player nearly every spectator has come to see, the woman who will shock the world if she does not win the Grand Slam, the most dominant athlete currently playing any sport … is dressed in camouflage.

And while Annika cannot truly hide, not with 62 career victories and over $17 million in winnings since 1993, blending in with the native fescue makes sense for the 34-year-old Swede. For she is both the hunter and the hunted today. So while the other players in her threesome stand out-Natalie Gulbis, dressed in hot-pink miniskirt and bedecked in jewelry, and orange-clad Gloria Park, whooshing the air with ferocious practice swings-Annika tries to blend into the environment, quietly stalking.

Watch her casually mimic a couple of chip shots, even though she's preparing to drive the ball. Watch her take aim, draw the club back, then simply drop club to ball and turn to face her target. Then watch the ball reach its chosen destination. Hear the applause. See Annika smile and wave, then hand the club to her caddie. Now prepare to watch this over and over and over again for the next four days.

All golfers have a preshot routine, but how many play the game so methodically that they actually seem to have a postshot routine? Annika not only has the game's most repeatable swing, she's got the most repeatable everything. Typically, the program ends with her hoisting a piece of silverware and an oversize check and giving a short speech about how she's "just a little girl from Sweden who came here hoping to win a few tournaments."

For Sorenstam, whose win at the LPGA has given her the first two majors of 2005, you could say it's all good. Just don't tell that to the competition. "I don't think it's all that good if Annika is winning every week," says Laura Davies. "It makes the rest of us look like we can't play, and that's just not true."

Of course, you can't blame anyone for feeling that way. "Right now, there's Annika and there's the rest of us," says Hall of Famer Juli Inkster. "She hasn't set the bar high; she's still pushing it higher." Perhaps if the bar were set, Inkster muses, "then some of the girls might be feeling a little better about things right now." Instead, they're stuck with the prospect of constantly playing for second-place cash.

"She's toying with us," says Davies. "Like a mouse and a cat."

Many other athletes have, over a given period of time, so dominated their sports as to virtually define them: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods (see page 98). Now, there's Annika, who looks ready to double, triple, even quadruple the staying power of those stars.

You know the debate, the one the sports-radio hosts pull out on the days when all the home teams are idle? Who rules their sport like no other? Annika has put that argument into storage. Seriously, it's no contest.

Flash back 10 years and you'll see when the era began, when Annika-at age 24, still just a little girl from Sweden-picked up her first three Tour victories, including the U.S. Women's Open, her first major. But flash back two years, to 2003, and you'll see when things got downright absurd. In her past 37 tournaments, Sorenstam has won 18 times, including four major titles, for $5,267,950 in winnings. Next on the money list over that period is Christie Kerr, at $2,721,592. Annika's scoring average during that stretch is 68.73, or 399 strokes under par in 134 rounds. Next on the list: Lorena Ochoa, at 255 under.

Another point of reference for this all-out domination is the two rounds she played with the men, missing the cut by four strokes at the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth in May 2003. Her 71-74 may have been the most intensely scrutinized two rounds of golf ever played. "After that pressure," Annika says, "wherever I go now, I feel like I've done that, I can handle that. Nothing scares me."

But how she scares the competition. For one thing, Annika doesn't even play all that much. This season, she's shown up for eight of 15 events and has taken home six winner's checks. For another, she makes it look too easy. She totes just 15 clubs in her travel bag: 14 gamers plus a 5-wood she might sub in if there's a particular shot on that week's course that calls for it. (Some pros carry more than twice that number.) She is not one for experimenting with trendy hybrids or long putters. She'll check in with her people at Callaway now and then to make sure that she's maxing out in driver technology, but other than that, she says, "I know what my clubs do. If I hit a bad shot, it's not the club's fault."

And then there's the thing about Annika's bad shots. "They're not bad shots for the rest of us," Inkster says. "Her consistency is a joke, especially off the tee. She's hitting it 285 yards down the center. Most players who hit it straight are giving up distance. Not Annika. The game is just a lot easier from where she's playing it." That difference in distance is reflected in her LPGA-best 75.3% of greens hit in regulation. And it's all those chances to putt for birdie that have allowed Annika to post 22 rounds in the 60s in just 30 rounds. Second on the 60s list is Moira Dunn, who's got 13 in 39 rounds. That's not a gap. That's a canyon.

As if that weren't enough to make peers feel inferior, Sorenstam talks often about her ultimate goal: 54, a birdie a hole, golf's equivalent of a perfect game. "She actually believes she can shoot 54 or lower," says Pia Nilsson, a coach who began working with Annika in the late 1980s in Sweden. Nilsson is the founder of the educational training company Golf54, Think54 and Coach54. Basically, she's responsible for convincing Sorenstam that anything is possible, even a perfect round. "Annika has a higher level of understanding of what it takes to play great golf," Nilsson says. "Swing is one thing, but her ability to coach herself mentally and emotionally is at mastery levels."

"I have a lot of mind games I play with myself," Annika says. "I talk to myself constantly. There are two people in me: one calm and one totally excited."

When Sorenstam began having success on Tour a decade ago, few believed she ever got excited. Because of her calm exterior and ever-straight game, she was portrayed as robotic, machinelike. That was unfair. She was simply shy. As a junior golfer, in fact, she used to finish second on purpose to avoid having to speak at the awards presentation. "I did it for a long time," she admits. "Then, I think my coaches figured out my plan and said, `I think second place needs to say something, too.' At that point, I figured I'd rather just win."

Were it not for her two rounds at Colonial, you have to wonder if Annika would have ever been able to shake that RoboGolfer rep. For it was during those two days in Fort Worth, when Sorenstam did nothing more than what she regularly does-hit great golf shots-that the public thought they saw another side to the best player in the women's game. They saw her laugh and cry. They saw her smile and frown. Of course, she'd done all those things before on the LPGA Tour. But it didn't seem to matter.

This was an event that became all about Annika. And while she swears it was not a marketing ploy-but rather a chance to test her game against the world's best players-it may go down as the best business decision Sorenstam ever made. Not only has she become far and away the most sponsored women's golfer on the planet, pulling in close to $5 million a year in deals, Annika is now celebrated in the sports world for what she is (awesome), and not criticized for what she isn't (talkative). Her workout regimen of weights and Pilates is the talk of players on both the men's and women's tours. It's added not only dramatic distance to her drives and long irons, but also, she says, improved her muscle memory. "I feel things in my swing that I didn't feel before I started training," she says. She's now revered as a supreme athlete.

"I think I am more comfortable in what I do," she says. "After Colonial, I think people respect me for who I am. When I came out early and won the U.S. Open in '95, I felt like there was a lot of pressure. I felt I had to be the next Nancy Lopez, and that's something that's really tough to live up to. Now I know what I'm all about, and I know what I enjoy doing, and I know what I can contribute. I think people have accepted me, and I think being accepted helps, too. But I'm still pretty shy."

Except, it seems, when it comes to golf. Annika has said flat-out that she's set her sights on becoming the first woman in the modern era to win the Grand Slam. Sandra Haynie won the U.S. Open and the LPGA Championship in 1974, the only two women's majors that existed then, while Babe Zaharias won all three "majors" (U.S. Open, Titleholders Championship, Western Open) in 1950. But if Annika can take the U.S. Open (at Cherry Hills CC, June 23-26) and the British Open (Royal Birkdale, July 28-31), she'll become the first woman to win four majors in one year and only the second golfer ever to claim a true Grand Slam (Bobby Jones, 1930). And considering that "Can you name the four women's golf majors?" actually stumped The Schwab on Stump The Schwab less than a month ago, it's clear the LPGA could use a SorenSlam if only to put the four events into the consciousness of mainstream sports fans. (Answer: the Kraft Nabisco Championships, the McDonald's LPGA Championship Presented by Coca-Cola, the U.S. Women's Open and the Weetabix Women's British Open.)

As a bonus, a Slam would put Annika one up on her new buddy and practice partner, Tiger Woods. Annika and Tiger, who share the same agent (IMG's Mark Steinberg), have been hitting the range near their Orlando homes together, and Annika says Tiger has helped her with the creative side of her game. "Using my imagination," she says. "Hitting different types of shots with the same club. There are many, many ways I can improve. Especially my short game."

Since her recent divorce from David Esch after an eight-year marriage, Annika admits she's gone tunnel vision on golf. A year ago, she was actually talking about retirement and motherhood. "Now my life has changed," she says. "I'm throwing myself into the game. This is my way of moving on. Golf is what's on my mind every day. I'm setting new goals and pushing myself because I know this is what I want to do."

One thing Annika says she's not about to do is venture onto the PGA Tour again. This comes as a disappointment to at least one of her LPGA competitors. "She'd make the cut," says Inkster. "She is a lot better than she was two years ago, and I think Colonial helped her realize just how good she could be. I wish she'd do it again."

But maybe Inkster is just wishing Annika would leave more cash on the table for her? Nah. "We have our events," she says. "And we have our events when Annika is playing. There's a different environment when she's around. You can sense it. You can feel it."

And no matter how you color it, you just can't hide it.