Commentary

Sorenstam's place in golf history, especially at home, stands secure

Originally Published: November 17, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Robert Karlsson is not nearly as famous as fellow Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam, but his accomplishments in 2008 are certainly something to be celebrated.

[+] EnlargeAnnika Sorenstam
China Photos/Getty ImagesOne of Annika Sorenstam's most famous accomplishments was when she became the only woman in LPGA Tour history to shoot a 59 in competition.

He became the first golfer from Sweden to win the European Tour's Order of Merit, has risen to No. 6 in the world and is coming off a season in which he finished top-10 in three major championships.

But Karlsson knows his place, especially when it comes to Sorenstam.

"I don't think we're in the same neighborhood yet," Karlsson admitted at the Volvo Masters recently, where he clinched the No. 1 spot on the money list. "She's been the best golfer in the world for a long time. Unfortunately, she is stopping playing this year. But I would say I'm probably the third-best Swede ever, if you look at the World Rankings, and she's the best woman ever if you include all the other nations. So I think I have quite a bit to go yet."

No doubt.

Very few compare to Sorenstam, who is set to end her full-time LPGA Tour career this week at the season-ending ADT Championship in West Palm Beach, Fla. Sorenstam, who said she has purposely not used the "r-word" -- as in retirement -- has left open the door to return in cameo fashion.

But she made it clear back in May when she announced this would be her last full season that she has other priorities to pursue after a Hall of Fame golf career that has seen her win 72 LPGA Tour titles and 10 major championships.

Sorenstam, 38, is scheduled to get married in January and has talked about having a family. She also has myriad business interests, including a golf academy and a clothing line.

But her impact, especially at home in Sweden, will always be for what she accomplished between the ropes.

"She's massive at home," said PGA Tour player Richard S. Johnson, 32, who is from Sorenstam's hometown of Stockholm and won his first tournament this year at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. "She's a great ambassador for the game. She has her own tournament. She's a big thing for junior golf in Sweden.

"And she's probably the biggest golfer we have in Sweden. Her and Jesper Parnevik. Even though Robert just won the Order of Merit in Europe, overall Jesper and Annika are the two biggest we've ever had, at least so far. We've got [Henrik] Stenson and Karlsson. But Annika has done huge things for Swedish golf."

Parnevik, 43, did have success before Sorenstam came along, winning the Scottish Open in 1993 and nearly winning the British Open in 1994 before going on to win five times on the PGA Tour.

But before Parnevik, Sweden's Liselotte Neumann won the 1988 U.S. Women's Open, a feat that Sorenstam has often said inspired her. Sorenstam was just 17 at the time, had not yet ventured to the United States to play college golf, and said winning the U.S. Women's Open after that became a goal.

While Neumann got Sorenstam's attention, that wasn't necessarily the case with the rest of the nation.

"What Annika has done … she has really paved the way," said Carl Pettersson, 31, a Swede who has won twice on the PGA Tour and finished 21st on the PGA Tour money list. "You'd have to be a real hard-core golf fan to know Liselotte Neumann and what she did. But most people who have played golf would know who Annika is. Golf has become a popular sport in Sweden, and as far as women, she is probably the most famous athlete. I've followed her career, and she was winning all the time there for a while."

From 2001 to 2005, Sorenstam won 43 times and had 86 top-10 finishes during that stretch. She is third in victories all time on the LPGA Tour behind only Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). Sorenstam is tied for fourth in majors behind Patty Berg's 15.

Among Sorenstam's other accomplishments, she won the career Grand Slam, is the only LPGA player ever to shoot 59 during competition and won eight player of the year awards.

And, of course, she received worldwide fame for her participation in the 2003 Colonial, becoming the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play in a PGA Tour event. Although she missed the cut, Sorenstam got a good measure of respect for the effort.

Parnevik, who played practice rounds with her that week, called her "Superwoman." And praise was heaped down on Sorenstam, who went on to win two major championships that year.

Along the way, she undoubtedly sparked more interest in the game at home in Sweden, a country of just 9 million people and some 600,000 golfers. Sweden now has 500 golf courses, almost all of them accessible to the public.

"Jesper is still the biggest male golfer in Sweden and he's also lived a celebrity life and made more of it, outside the golf course," Karlsson said. "He comes from a celebrity family, his dad [Bo] is a big comedian. So he was probably more well known.

"But Annika has her own tournament, and spends a lot of time in America, and so for the Swedish public … celebrity status, she would be one of the biggest ones ever."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com