Annika and the Amazing 88


July 10, 1994 nearly 12 years ago, Annika Sorenstam last missed a cut in a non-major. She was a rookie then at a tournament in Toledo, Ohio, and had just missed three cuts in succession, failing in four of her first nine events.
Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam is just 22 wins away from tying the all-time wins mark on the LPGA Tour.
Now its March of 2006. Annika, now 35, has become perhaps the greatest female golfer in history. Her LPGA sisters have already begun their campaign, having gone to Hawaii for a couple of tournaments. Sorenstam, who plays only about 20 tournaments a year, didnt join them as a pair of South Koreans won the opening two events. But now after rubbing the sleep from her eyes and yawning a couple of times, shes ready for 2006. Games over, gals.
It may be of interest to note that the last four years, Annika has won her first time out in three of those. Last year, she won the MasterCard Classic in Mexico City in her first tournament, which is where she begins again this season. She hasnt played an official event since she won the ADT Championship the middle of November, nearly four months ago. But rest assured that she is ready.
Last year, after waiting more than three months between her last event of 2004 and the MasterCard which started her 2005 season, she was three shots behind Cristie Kerr beginning the final round. She parred the first hole Sunday, but then she just shifted gears and blew the field away. Annika birdied five consecutive holes beginning with the second and had the lead by herself midway though the front nine. She put it on cruise and won by three ' case closed.
I wanted everybody to know that Im ready to play and ready to go, she said simply. And in case there was any doubt of her dominance, she also won the next two events, six of the first eight.
She still makes rumbles as though she may quit at any time, though they arent nearly as pronounced as they were three or four years ago before her marriage ended. That is because she has another reason to keep playing now. She has averaged better than eight wins a season the past five years and suddenly has emerged as a genuine threat to beat Kathy Whitworths all-time record of 88 victories.
Last year was the first time Annika even considered that she might one day topple the record. But 10 wins in 2005 brought it squarely into focus. Whitworth believes it will happen. 'There's no doubt, I think that she has every opportunity and every chance to break my record, and win more than that, said Whitworth. If she does, more power to her. I think that's just great. Records are made to be broken.'
And Sorenstam has at last conceded that it just might be possible.
'I'm still 22 (wins) away,' said Sorenstam after her final victory in 2005. 'But then again, I'm on my way. I'm going to come out next year and see what happens.'
Sixty-six ' thats her number of wins as this year begins. Eight wins a year ' thats 24 if she can continue mowing them down in the same regularity. She would be 38 then - not old for an athlete who has kept herself in amazing shape over the last few years. But with more and more top young players ' the Paula Creamers, the Michelle Wies, the Morgan Pressels, the Lorena Ochoas and the overwhelming number of impressive young Asians ' there is certainly no guarantee Sorenstam can continue to win eight per year for three years.
Whitworth, though, won 16 more times after she reached 35. And it seems entirely logical that Annika, if she so desires, can get the record. There is no doubt in my mind that she could win tournaments well into her 40s, 10 years from now. Whitworth won the final time at age 46.
The X factor, though, is will she want to keep playing? She has a new romance now. And there are numerous other interests which occupy her time. At times she yearns for the life of a private citizen, to put on jeans and a baggy t-shirt and do whatever, whenever she wants. Someday ' and not even she knows for sure ' that will be more important than living in the harsh light of public life.
Of course I think about that a little bit, she admitted toward the end of last season. I mean, I think I've said many times, as long as I enjoy the game and as long as I feel motivated to go out and practice every day, then that's something I want to continue to do.
But I have other interests outside of the golf course. And of course one day I'd like to pursue some of those interests. Hopefully it's going to be around golf because I love the game so much. But I think it's very tough to stay on this competitive level for so long. It takes a lot of hard work, it takes a lot of stress on your body, a lot of travel. And one day I'd like to try something else.
Does it sound like she isnt quite sure what she will do? It does. But then, she never has gotten within shouting distance of Whitworths record before. It no longer is just a dream, its a definite reality. I say she wont retire for at least three more years. And if shes within five or six of the record at the end of that time ' if she just wins, say, five a year - I think shell stay. And, I believe that she will continue playing until she gets the record.
Annika does have a great sense of the history of the game and her role in it. I cant believe she would walk away from it while she is within touching distance of something as unattainable as the record of Kathy Whitworth. There may never again be anyone in history who has a chance to set a new mark.
Now is the time, and Annika is the person.
Email your thoughts to George White