"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 4, on Annika Sorenstam. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.
Most people, at some point in their life, wonder what it would be like to start over. Not long ago, I was driving through the desert into West Texas. In El Paso, I looked across the muddy river to Mexico. The bridge to the other side wasn't long, and the Mexicans hadn't bothered to occupy the tiny guard post. I walked across, and I was in a new country, gazing at a new horizon. I could have kept going, and nobody would have been able to find me. If Yankee Stadium could vanish, why couldn't I? I tried to imagine the strange brand of courage it would take to disappear.
In May, Annika Sorenstam announced that 2008 would be her last year on the LPGA Tour. One of the most dominant athletes of the past decade had decided to disappear. She had known she would retire since the previous winter, when she peeked at her watch on the driving range and wondered if it was time to go home. "I stopped and thought, Wait a minute, I used to love this," she said. "All of a sudden, I'm watching the clock. That's when I knew this would be my last year."
She said this as she sat on the veranda of the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, overlooking empty fairways and a lake that turned white in the midday light. The night before, she had arrived home from a jet-lagged swing through Asia, where she won her fourth tournament of the year, the Suzhou Taihu Ladies Open in Suzhou, China. It was the 89th title of her career, seven more than Sam Snead's PGA Tour record.
She took a sip from a glass of water and said without smiling, "In comparison to a lot of other players, 2008 might have been a great year for me. But in comparison to some of my previous years, it's been pretty average. I've pushed myself into a corner where I have to win seven or eight times for it to be a good year. So not having the year I want, in my mind, justifies my decision. I have this battle with myself all the time: Give yourself a break, you've had a great career. But when I'm inside the ropes, I'm thinking, Come on—you can hit this 5-iron to five feet, or you can make this 10-footer for birdie. That has really hurt me, to know I just don't have it in me anymore. I wish I did, but I don't."
A deer appeared on the closest fairway. It stopped and waited. Two more appeared, and they all stood watching us watch them. "I wish I brought my camera," Sorenstam said.
The deer lightened something in her, and seeing her then was like watching her play this year, at least after she made public her impending departure. Fans took the opportunity to wash her in warm ovations each time she walked up the 18th fairway. "It's been amazing," she said. "I make a bogey, and I'm pissed off and I go to the next tee, and somebody says, 'Thank you for everything you've done.' How can I still be upset?"
Sorenstam talked about the life she's leaving and what she remembers of it. She talked about being compared with Nancy Lopez as a rookie; she talked about shooting 59, the only woman to reach golf's magic number; she talked about taking three LPGA Championships in a row, and she talked about being inducted into golf's Hall of Fame. Mostly, though, she talked about the two days in 2003 when she played with the men at the Colonial. It was the time when the focus on her was most intense. Her playing caused a great debate about men and women and equality and the sanctity of the game, but Sorenstam's decision sprang from a more private desire: to test herself, to see if she really had gone as far as she could go. And after it was over, after she missed the cut by four strokes and had spent Saturday recovering from the storm, she realized she was a long way from finished. There was more she could do.
"I got so much out of that experience," she said. "The end of that year and 2004 were probably my best time in the game, because of what I learned that week. I'm a perfectionist. I'm extremely hard on myself. But I was suddenly comfortable with who I was. Have I made mistakes in my career? Absolutely. Would I do anything different? Probably. But I gave it everything I have."
The three deer remained on the fairway. We watched until two more appeared. "I know I'm lucky," she continued. "I come from a little city in Sweden known for hockey, and here I am all these years later in Orlando, looking over a beautiful lake, watching deer cross a fairway."
"I'm very content," she said, finally. "I'm very happy."
She sounded as though she believed it. As the deer disappeared into the trees, Annika Sorenstam seemed ready to stop confusing the things she should remember with the things she should forget.
Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"
Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 2: Michael Phelps
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.