The Numbers 6 and 26 - and Annika

By George WhiteJune 23, 2005, 4:00 pm
2005 U.S. WomenPatty Berg has 15. Kathy Whitworth has 88.
Those are the numbers. Annika Sorenstam is reaching for the record of 15 majors owned by Berg. And Whitworth owns 88 - the LPGA record for wins. Annika has come so far in her quest - but she still has miles to go.
Before this year, before she had won six times in eight tries, she didnt even think it was a possibility. Now it is possible, out there in the distance, but suddenly a distinct probability. But people, do you realize what it would be like to win six more majors, or 26 more titles?
Do you realize that in her entire career, Judy Rankin only won 26 times? And do you realize that in her entire career, Kathy Whitworth ' she of the 88 tour victories - only won six majors? Those are the numbers staring Sorenstam in the face as she prepares to play the U.S. Womens Open.
Of course, Rankin played 21 years. Whitworth played 32 years. Sorenstam has played 11. So ' it is an awesome task that Annika still has before her.
But, Annika is an awesome talent.
Lets take the comparisons out a bit further ' Annika is 34 years old now. That is the age of Whitworth when Kathy had her last big year ' seven wins in 1973. Mickey Wright, whom many consider historys greatest woman player, was also 34 when she had her last big year ' four wins in 1968. But Whitworth had been playing for 14 years by the time she had reached 34. And Wright, who had 82 victories by the time she quit, had been playing for 14 years by the time she reached 34.
Sorenstam? She has played three less years than Whitworth and Wright.
One interesting tidbit, though ' the incredible number of wins caused both Whitworth and Wright to suffer emotional near-breakdowns in their 30s. Wrights came almost exactly 50 years ago when an injured wrist just before the 1965 U.S. Womens Open forced her to withdraw the day before the championship began. She drove to her home in Dallas and couldnt stop crying.
I dont know if all the pressure made it necessary to get out of it, or if the physical things (she also had perennial foot problems) just plain happened, she told Rhonda Glenn in the book The Illustrated History of Womens Golf. I really dont know.
Wright interrupted her career to enroll in SMU, but she hated studying and the next year she was back in the pressure cooker. But the rigors of having to play so much (she played 33, 30 and 27 tournaments starting in 1962) had slowly built until she was through as a perrenial winner in 1969. She was only destined to won one more tournament.
Whitworth, likewise, was emotionally exhausted after the final tournament in 1973. My nerves were so bad I could hardly sign the score card, she told Liz Kahn in The LPGA: An Authorized Version. I was so exhausted and nervous I just scribbled my name. I remember it so well, and after the presentation I barely crawled back to my room, where I just died on the couch in exhaustion.
Sorenstam, though, appears to be still going strong at 34, and there really doesnt appear to be a limit to how long she can play. There are several reasons for that, of course ' she hasnt had to face the same kind of pressures Wright and Whitworth did. Both Wright and Whitworth were obligated to make speeches to every Rotary and Civitan club in the small towns in which the LPGA played. Both faced debilitating injuries ' Whitworth suffered extensively with her knees.
However, from another viewpoint - Wright and Whitworth both played at a time when often there were only 30 or 35 players in the field. Many times the smallcourses where they played would send the women out first, then follow them with members' tee times. Plus, many times, tournaments were no more than two rounds.
So, you see, it is impossible to say who definitively was the greatest. Sorenstam faces tougher fields, faces her own kind of pressures with a worldwide media, and plays against competition form around the globe. But - she plays only 18-20 times a year.
Who is the best? There is no way to ever tell conclusively, not even by comparing records. Comparing players from different eras is actually no comparison. All three are ' were ' exceptional athletes.
But one thing is certain ' Annika doesnt sit in the back of the class when you are discussing the greatest of the LPGA.
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