Annika Sorenstam is lunching sensibly on a salad at a back table in the dining room of her club in the fashionable and gated Lake Nona community near the golf mecca that is Orlando, Fla.
It is early November and she is just one week removed from a late season, come-from-behind victory in China that was followed by an appearance detour to South Africa. She has just emerged from a mid-Saturday morning business meeting and there is another one planned immediately after lunch.
She is accompanied by her fianc, Mike McGee. And, between bites, she says she cant wait for her 18-hour day schedule to contract to 12 hours.
The wedding is set for early January. So there are endless planning details. And there is a family to start after that. More immediately, there is a tournament in Mexico, another in Florida and one more after that in Dubai. All before Christmas.
But for now she is pausing to reflect. There are no microphones, no cameras and she is wearing no make-up. She is impossibly fresh, characteristically alert and, as the questions find a rhythm, coming from a private audience of two veteran golf reporters, she increasingly relaxes.
In the grand scale of a grand career, you ask, where should we place Colonial? Simultaneously and multi-taskingly, she chews on the question and the salad.
I think for the general public it opened up eyes that if you have a dream, then pursue it, she begins. And dont run away from challenges. I think that was just the message over-all. And it wasnt about the result; it was about the experience.
Her eyes brighten. It was the time in her life when she played her best golf. And she couldnt get enough of it.
The more motivated I got, the more I practiced, she says. And then, stepping up the practice routine at the Colonial, I practiced like a maniac. It was a wonderful stretch. I never thought about any consequences and the confidence level was as high as it could be. I just kept on going.
The whole sports world would be focused on Fort Worth, Texas, in May 2003. But worrying was something others would experience. Annika, 32 years old then, was too busy in the moment.
One impressionable young Mexican woman was at home in Guadalajara with her family that week. There they spent the better part of two days in a room with a television watching history being made by this Swedish role model and pioneer.
I was nervous like I was playing myself, playing that tournament, Lorena Ochoa says now. Every time Annika would go through her routine it was like, Cmon, you can do it. Cmon, you can make it.
The official name of that tournament was the Bank of America Colonial. It was where Sorenstam became the first woman since the legendary Babe Zaharias, 58 years earlier, to play in a PGA Tour event.
It was arguably the most observed occasion in the history of the womens game when you consider how powerful the international media glare was for those two days in May.
There was my mom, my dad, my brothers we were all pulling for her, adds Ochoa, who has since replaced Sorenstam at the top of womens golf. We were jumping on the couch. I will always remember that.
Thats what it meant, at the time, to a promising tour rookie who is now leaving her own vapor trail in womens golf. That's how excited they were. They were hopping around on the furniture.
A Hawaiian prodigy named Michelle Wie has since tried, and failed miserably, to leave a similar mark playing against men. Ochoa, for her part, has said she isnt looking for that kind of challenge.
But for every hard case tour pro like Scott Verplank, who recently said, There hasnt been a girl yet who can compete out here, there is another one like Dean Wilson.
Wilson wore a Go Annika button during Colonial week 2003. He and Aaron Barber (no longer playing competitive professional golf) and Sorenstam comprised the grouping the bulk of the crowds followed Thursday and Friday at Colonial. If Lorena has the opportunity to play against the men, Wilson said just last month, she should take it. I think theres still a lot of curiosity.
Even the flinty Verplank adds a qualifier. Hasnt been one yet, he repeats. But that doesnt mean there wont some day be one.
In many ways its hard to believe five years have passed since Sorenstam shot 71-74 at Colonial Country Club. She missed the cut by four shots that week but played well enough against the guys to prove she hadnt under-clubbed when she had quietly insisted she didnt have to overswing to reach her dream in regulation.
To be sure, mechanics helped. I think, PGA Tour veteran and fellow Swedish native Daniel Chopra said recently, Annika has one of the top five swings in the world. Male or female.
Actually, it was really quite remarkable how well Sorenstam stayed within herself on and off the golf course in a week where the crowds swarming around Colonial resembled, at times, a mob storming the palace gates.
When Sorenstam arrived at Colonial on the Monday of tournament week, her van driver didnt know how to access the back range. So she called Callaway rep Barry Lyda from the car for directions.
There are all these people here, she said.
Theyre here to see you, Lyda told her.
Lyda ordered the driver to stay put until he got there. Then he told Annika to lie down so the assembled crowds wouldnt see her.
What is happening? Sorenstam asked, looking up at Lyda as the van finally pressed forward.
History was happening.
Callaway had rented a house for Annika and several of its officials. We had to stay out of the restaurants all week, Lyda recalls. It was a nutcase world.
At the end of each day, they would cook up a pasta dinner and turn on the Golf Channel. Annika was glued to all of it, Lyda says, referring to the TV, not the pasta.
Those stories are all true, Sorenstam says now.
In the end, she cared enough about her place in the game to measure herself against the best men, even if that meant exposing herself to the slings and arrows of outrageous second-guessing.
The operative word is cared. When Sorenstam announced earlier this year that she would be taking this hiatus of undetermined length, her caddie, Terry McNamara, received a call asking him to reveal something about Annika that he knew and the rest of us didnt.
She cares, he said. She cares about the people in her life. McNamara went on to say that Annikas natural shyness prevented more people from knowing that side of her.
And on this day at Lake Nona, Annika admitted that if she had to do it all over again she probably would have chosen to do more media training. If she had, more people might have known how much she cares.
McGee got emotional when asked to weigh in on the subject. He and McNamara had spent four hours over beers talking, laughing, and crying in a Chinese airport while waiting for their recent flight home. Sorenstam had already boarded her flight to South Africa.
We were sharing experiences about what a great person Annika is, McGee said, choking up all over again. Composing himself, McGee explained how it is about more than just care; how his fiancs concern for those close to her has an analytical side.
His words: She is so caring and so loving. What more can you ask of anybody than to know no matter what, if you went to her and she believed in your cause and that you were right, shed be there to help you? And if not, shed ask, Why do you think that? Shed want to figure out the entire situation. Shes just brilliant at assessing situations.
And not too bad at remembering things that matter. Like her first and last birdies at Colonial. The first one came at the 13th hole on Thursday. And five years later its still meaningful to her because, she says, The man in the family that owned the house (they were renting) had died in a car accident a few months earlier and his dream was to have his ashes poured over the 13th green. That still gives me goose bumps.
Annikas final birdie at Colonial occurred at the second hole Friday. Again, there was significance. Turns out Zaharias, dying of cancer, stopped and kissed the second green the last time she played Colonial.
More goose bumps. And that, to me, just ties everything in, Sorenstam says. I believe that some things just happen for a reason.
So by every standard, except the scorecard, Annika Sorenstam passed the tests of the 2003 Colonial. Tour veteran Olin Browne, a past champion at Colonial, sat down afterward and wrote Sorenstam a letter.
In it, he told her he had always been impressed with the way she carried herself.
She had missed the cut. But, for the record, Annika had posted the same 36-hole score as current successful PGA Tour players Tim Clark, Arron Oberholser and Heath Slocum. Among the players she beat that week were former Players Championship winner Craig Perks, former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, and former PGA Championship winner Mark Brooks.
Largely unreported was the story of how well the men accepted Sorenstams presence and treated her on the course and around the range that week.
Shes one of the people who gets it, Browne says now. She doesnt do anything half-baked.
Id like to meet her one day, adds recent Tour winner Cameron Beckman, happy to admit he is a fan of Sorenstams.
I used to love just watching her results, says Chopra.
I still think its a good thing that she played, Wilson says.
And maybe thats the final, good lesson of Colonial 2003: It wasnt just Annika Sorenstam testing herself against the men. It was the men having their own human qualities tested by the presence of a woman in one of their fields.
Annika would very much care for it to be known that they passed, too.