She made it seem so easy. For four days, over the sandy-soil
course of the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines,
N.C., Annika Sorenstam wore out fairways with her driver, greens
with her irons, holes with her putter and opponents with her
relentlessness. And for the second consecutive year, Annika
Sorenstam won the U.S. Women's Open. Golf might have identified
its next Hogan.
Albeit in an unlikely package: a 25-year-old Swede with
sun-bleached hair, a cheerful face, space-age sunglasses and a
bag crowded with five metal woods. But in the important ways,
Sorenstam follows in the tradition of the great Texan, whose
golf was silent and deadly and at its best at the events that
mattered most. Women's golf has no event that matters more than
World-class golfers will tell you there's practically nothing
more difficult than playing in a big-time tournament with a
gaudy lead (cf. Greg Norman, the Masters, April 14, 1996). At
Pine Needles on Sunday, Sorenstam proved to be otherworldly.
After opening with a level-par 70, she followed with rounds of
67 and 69 and had a three-stroke lead after 54 holes. In the end
she won by six. When her five-shot lead vanished momentarily on
Saturday afternoon, Sorenstam never lost her head. On Sunday,
Kris Tschetter, the runner-up, finished her workweek with a 66,
matching the low score of the tournament, and did not gain a
stroke. Sorenstam closed with a 66, too.
That's not the way it's supposed to go at the national
championship, especially on Sunday. The par police, wrapped in
the blue-blazer uniform of the U.S. Golf Association, set up
Pine Needles in the traditional manner: narrow fairways, choking
rough, expressway greens. But Sorenstam missed only five
fairways. She ran the ball to the hole as if she had been
playing piney North Carolina golf all her days. She gave most
putts a chance to fall, and when they didn't, she was,
generally, just a foot or two beyond the hole. She outcooled
everybody. At least she gave that appearance. The internal
monologues were another matter.
"I was real nervous on the 18th tee," she said later. Her accent
is more English than American, owing to three formative years at
a London private school. But her sporting locutions--real
nervous--are strictly U.S., the result of two years at the
University of Arizona and three years on the LPGA tour. "I knew
I had a five- or six-shot lead, but it's never over until it's
Her approach to golf is mottled too. There's an English quality
to her game: She has won in all types of weather and on all
types of surfaces. There's an American quality: Her devotion to
practice is Hoganesque. And there's a distinctly Swedish
quality: For Sorenstam, golf is a science, a science of the body
and the mind.
Last year Sorenstam won the U.S. Open and five other events.
This year she began by...not playing at all. When the tour
resumed in January, Sorenstam was in the middle of a long break
from which she would not be disturbed. She didn't play her first
event until mid-March. She said she needed to rejuvenate herself
and she wasn't going to show up at golf tournaments if she
didn't think she could play her best. She was already thinking
about the U.S. Open. Many people did not understand.
While the golfing sorority gathered in Florida for the start of
the new season, Sorenstam was in suburban San Diego, where she
lives, testing out new kitchen appliances and preparing
home-cooked meals (Sorenstam dislikes the American custom of
routinely eating out) for her fiance, David Esch, and her golf
coach, Pia Nilsson. Nilsson was visiting from Sweden and saying
outlandish things in the calmest of voices.
"Being a young golf nation, we look at things differently,"
Nilsson said during her visit. She is the director of the
Swedish Golf Federation. "We're trying to find ways to shoot 54,
make birdies on every hole. Who says two putts on every green
has to be the norm?" Sorenstam nodded with approval.
Several months later--on Sunday, to be precise--Sorenstam needed
only 27 putts, 1.5 per hole. At the 10th, a par-5, she needed
one. She followed a 220-yard drive with a 220-yard three-wood
shot and then holed a 25-foot putt. The eagle practically
assured her victory, even though she showed moments of
imperfection on 13 and 14, where she made bogeys.
Sorenstam is good and getting better, which is her overarching
goal. Swedish golf is much the same. The country has 360,000
avid golfers, and an unusually high proportion of them are very
skillful. At Pine Needles, Catrin Nilsmark, a 28-year-old Swede,
finished seventh and Liselotte Neumann--the first Swede to win a
U.S. Open, in 1988--tied for eighth. Nilsson works with Neumann
too, and Neumann, 30, has long been a model for Sorenstam.
"Why does Liselotte practice one-foot putts?" Sorenstam asked
one day last winter as she and Nilsson stood on the practice
putting green of the Del Mar (Calif.) Country Club.
"Because she likes to hear the sound of the ball dropping,"
"I like short putts because I can see the hole," Sorenstam said.
"Longer putts, I can't."
"Can you close your eyes and see a hole?" Nilsson asked.
Sorenstam closed her bright blue eyes and stood for a moment in
the dark. "Not as well," she said.
"You can work on that," said the coach, and the pupil nodded. At
Pine Needles, Sorenstam was seeing holed putts in her dreams.
Swedish golfers are, by stereotype, robotic, with technically
excellent, gymnasium-developed swings that falter in the varying
conditions imposed by tournament golf. Sorenstam defies the
generalization. She has won in the wind, in the rain, in the
cold and in four days of sunny, warm weather, the prevailing
conditions at Pine Needles. In the bright sunshine, spectators
could see that Sorenstam's swing, while simple and repeatable,
is not robotic. In fact, there is an element of eccentricity to
it. As her club head makes contact, her head is already up and
ahead of the ball, pointed in the direction she wants the ball
to travel. Sorenstam looks up to help get her body through the
ball, she says. Her head-up position makes her enviably
target-oriented. It lets her come close to fulfilling the
brilliant advice of Ty Webb, the club golfer played by Chevy
Chase in Caddyshack: "Be the ball."
Sorenstam believes good golf starts in the head. On memo pads
she carries in her back pocket, she records her moods after
rounds and practice sessions. "Happy, aggressive, focused,
patient," she wrote down awhile back, and on some future day,
when she's not feeling happy or focused or patient or
aggressive, she'll return to that page to recapture those moods.
After her triumph on Sunday, Sorenstam was asked what thoughts
she'll record. "I don't know exactly what I'll write, but I
think I'll credit myself," she said. "Sometimes I'm too hard on
myself. I gave 100 percent. I was focused." She was also happy,
aggressive and patient.
Sorenstam's next step will be interesting. She won her
tournament on a day when an immense number of golfers were glued
to their tubes, remotes in hand, flicking between Tom Watson at
Muirfield Village and Sorenstam at Pine Needles. The question in
Ohio was, Can Watson hold up? The question in North Carolina
was, How many can she win by? Now the question about Sorenstam
is this: Will she be the next genuine star in women's golf?
There hasn't been one, really, since 1978, when Nancy Lopez was
launched as a telegenic, unassuming and nonthreatening heroine.
The launching is done by the men who market American golf--the
presidents of the network sports divisions, the editors of the
leading golf magazines, the executives at the equipment
manufacturers--and they're a fickle bunch. They passed on Pat
Bradley and Beth Daniel. Patty Sheehan and Betsy King had a
decadelong rivalry, and nobody seemed to know about it. What
they will do with Sorenstam is unknown. What Sorenstam wants is
unknown too. She's happier hiking with a knapsack on her back
than shopping at a mall. Her material needs are modest. She is
modest. You can see it in the way she waves her hand in response
to clapping spectators, a little, abrupt flash of the palm, not
even shoulder-high, then quickly back down again. She doesn't
like calling attention to herself. In Sweden she is a national
figure; in August her face will appear on a postage stamp. But
America doesn't have national figures, it has celebrities, and
becoming a celebrity is not among Sorenstam's aspirations. "I'm
just going to become a better player," she said Sunday evening.
"That's my goal." Which means, as Hogan knew better than
anybody, practice, practice and more practice.
For most players, golf exists in three places: on the course, on
the practice tee and in the head. These distinctions are unknown
to Sorenstam. Unlike most touring professionals, she does not
seek to groove her swing on the practice tee and play the game
on the course. For her, practice is playing and playing is
practice. She does not have one level of concentration for a
competitive round and another for a practice session. She has
eliminated the boundaries. When she practices her chipping, she
gives herself bad lies, the type you get on the course. She says
if you can play the bad lies, you can play the good ones.
Failure to make a certain putt on the practice green might
result in a night without ice cream. She always has something at
stake. It's almost as if every shot she plays is to win the U.S.
The most ephemeral state of mind for the professional golfer is
confidence. Last July on the morning of the final round of the
U.S. Open, at the East Course of The Broadmoor in Colorado
Springs, Sorenstam's confidence was soaring, even though she
trailed the leader, Meg Mallon, by five strokes. "I could see
myself at the prize ceremony," she says, recalling her dreams of
the night before. "I was not afraid of anything." She closed
with a 68, Mallon faltered and Sorenstam won by a shot.
This year, her confidence was soaring again. "My shots went
straight, my putts went in. There was nothing in the way," she
says. "I felt like I could close my eyes and hit." The result
was more satisfying. "Last year, I think I won because Meg
Mallon made mistakes. This year I won because I played well."
On the final hole of last year's Open, Mallon made a 20-foot
putt to tie Sorenstam and force a playoff. While the
unsuccessful putt was rolling, Sorenstam's underlying intensity
emerged, and her eyes flared open with fright. This year, there
was no fright. There were four days of extraordinary golf and
cooped-up emotions. When it was all over, when she had done what
Hogan had done in his prime--won two consecutive U.S.
Opens--there were hugs from her parents and her fiance and her
caddie and her friends. And finally, in the end, there were
tears, joyful tears.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [Annika Sorenstam]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND By mixing a number of styles, Sorenstam has been able to rise to the top of women's golf. [Annika Sorenstam]
COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN A homebody uncomfortable with celebrity, Sorenstam (with fiance Esch) must lead a double life. [David Esch and Annika Sorenstam holding trophy]