In the spring of 2003, Annika Sorenstam became the first woman in over half a century to join the field of a PGA Tour event at the Colonial– a move that would divide the golfing world...
It was the Hollywood plot the public wanted: the greatest female player on the planet sharing the lead role with her male counterparts.
Fifty-eight years after Babe Zaharias had made the midway cut at the Los Angeles Open, hopes were high for the finesse of Annika Sorenstam to counter the force of man at the 2003 Colonial. The global appeal and blue eyes endeared her to the audience. But as ever, a subplot was developing…
Chief villain was world number seven, Vijay Singh. The two-time Major winner threatened to pull out of the tournament if paired with Sorenstam. “What is she going to prove by playing? rambled Singh. “She doesn’t belong out here. It’s ridiculous.”
Of course the outcome of what was a low-key sideshow came when Sorenstam missed the cut. There were no fireworks. Nobody walked off the course in disgust. Kenny Perry took the spoils with a record aggregate of 261, and Annika skipped back to the women’s circuit where she would add another six Majors and 36 LPGA titles to her name in the next five years.
And it is for this that she should be remembered, rather than as a playmate for the boys in their own backyard. “She’s the greatest female golfer of all time,” mused Tiger Woods. Who could argue?
UNLIKE ANY OTHER
There was just something special about her. Overpowering but not overbearing, Annika Sorenstam quickly became the sweet darling of the women’s game as her career blossomed with a smile towards the back end of the 1990s.
Forty-two career LPGA titles were already in the bag by the end of the 2002 season. The consensus was that she was simply too good for the girls.
In 2001 she became the first women to shoot a 59. Whispers of a sponsor’s exemption for a PGA Tour event surfaced. It would be good for golf; a statement to the world to suggest the game was losing some of its old-school stuffiness.
With an invitation to play in the Colonial accepted by Sorenstam in February, the world was now ready for the battle of the sexes at Fort Worth, Texas, the following May…
Scott Hoch: “Most guys hope she plays well and that what comes out of this is that she realises she can’t compete against the men.”
THE GLOVES ARE OFF
To add to Hoch’s comments in the build-up, Singh quickly became embroiled in what seemed like a personal attack on Sorenstam. “I won’t play,” slammed the Fijian as he cited the fact that the Swede should have to qualify for a PGA Tournament. “There are guys out there who are trying to make a living,” he added.
Singh was also speaking from personal experience with regards to his views on Sorenstam standing little chance of competing. In 1998 he had taken part in an event called the ‘Super Tour’ that pitted the skills of nine pros, men and women, after four rounds across Asia. Laura Davies, regarded as one of the most powerful female hitters ever, finished 39 strokes behind Singh.
In preparation for Colonial, Sorenstam played a practice round with World No.1 Tiger Woods from the back tees. She finished ten strokes adrift…
Tiger Woods: “It would be fairer if she could play four or five tournaments – then you could judge on those results and she’ll get on a roll. In one tournament a lot can go wrong for her.”
Kenny Perry: “She’s going to have Tiger Woods’ media. I’m anxious to see how she handles that. I don’t think she really knows what she is getting into.”
SINGING IN THE RAIN
On the eve of the Tournament, Sorenstam was able to get in ten holes of the Pro-Am. With her round cut short by heavy rain, there were fears that the damp conditions would make life even tougher for her with length becoming more of an issue.
But balanced with the fact that the greens would be slower and therefore more in tune with the speeds she was used to on the LPGA, there was a positive murmuring for her progress. And despite all the chat, Sorenstam continued to carry herself with grace and class. She was the story of the week, choosing to sidestep the controversy that had been stirred up to focus solely on her game.
Phil Mickelson: “Guys who are having a tough time with this are thinking this is the men’s tour. It’s not. It’s the best tour, for the best players.”
Kelli Kuehne: “She’s looking at it from her perspective. She’s not looking at it overall, to help grow the women’s game. She has a lot to lose and nothing to gain.”
ON THE TEE
The sight of Sorenstam exhaling with relief after hitting her opening Thursday drive down the middle was proof of the pressure the 32-year-old was under. It was a challenge she had not faced in the years where she had dominated previously.
The Swede was paired with Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson, and looked to be making steady progress on the front nine. Her consistency was without question; she hit 13 of 14 fairways from the tee and even bombed one drive all of 282 yards.
Her approach play was also in fine tune, hitting 14 greens in regulation. As expected, the damp conditions did affect distance overall, but it was to be a critical three-putt bogey on the last that thwarted hopes with a one-over-par 71.
Aaron Barber: “She’s a machine. I’ve never played with someone over 18 holes who didn’t miss a shot. When I got the call about the grouping, I was nervous, and then I quickly turned that into excitement.”
Annika Sorenstam: “Obviously I was very nervous, but I had worked so hard in preparation for the tournament that I had nothing else to lose at that point. Once I hit the opening tee shot, I had a sense of relief. I just let my emotions flow.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR…
In Friday’s second round, Sorenstam’s four-over-par 74 meant a five-over total of 145. She would miss the cut by four strokes.
Three bogeys on the front nine and two on the back meant there would be no repeat of Zaharias’ 1945 feat. To the delight of the galleries, Sorenstam continued in style throughout her damaging round, even firing at pins as she chased birdie opportunities down the closing stretch.
But it wasn’t about the result; her demeanour had shone from start to finish, and her emotions showed as she shed tears on leaving the 18th green.
Vijay Singh: “It was not an attack on Annika and if it was, it was not put that way. I actually said that if I missed the cut, I’d rather see her miss the cut as well. I don’t want to go back and know that a woman beat me…”
Jesper Parnevik: “She played amazing. I guess we have the ‘Shark’, the ‘Tiger’ and now we have the ‘Superwoman’…”
BEST OF THE BEST…
In the years following the Colonial, Sorenstam had other opportunities to play on the PGA Tour. But she continued to grow as the purest role model for women by dominating her own field.
In 2005 she would win ten LPGA Tour events – a staggering 50% success rate of the tournaments she entered. By the time she ended her career at the end of 2008, there were no fewer than ten Majors and 90 worldwide wins in the locker.
Annika Sorenstam: “I wanted to challenge myself and didn’t think I needed to do it one more time. I smelled the blood, and that’s what I wanted to do. Since 2003, I had my best years, and I credit that to Colonial. When you’re always being chased, it’s tough to see the path ahead of you. But I saw the path, and I knew where to go.”