No shortcuts for Annika's rise to the top

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

ORLANDO, Fla. Annika Sorenstam was cold, wet and tired of hitting balls in the rain when she called her father and asked him to take her home.

The road out of Bro-Balsta Golf Club in Stockholm loops around the driving range, and Tom Sorenstam couldn't help but notice the other teenagers still practicing.

''He didn't say anything when he picked me up,'' Sorenstam said. ''But when we drove away, he said, 'I just want you to know there are no shortcuts to success.' I knew what he meant. To get better, you have to practice. Just by saying that, it hurt me that I went home.

''Because I wanted to be good,'' she added. ''And I knew he was right.''

That lesson transformed Sorenstam into one of the greatest players in LPGA Tour history, one whose success comes more from determination and will than raw talent.

At 33, Sorenstam already has won 47 times and the career Grand Slam. She is seventh in career victories on the LPGA Tour; no other active player has more than 35 wins. She is the only woman to shoot 59, the only one to go over $2 million in a season (twice).

And in May, she became the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour, with two rounds at the Colonial that proved she is up to any challenge.

''I equate her to Michael Jordan,'' Meg Mallon said. ''When he came out of college, they said all he could do was dunk, so he developed a jump shot and had the best jump shot in the game. They said he wasn't a team player, so he went out and won six championships.

''She sets goals, and she achieves them. Instead of a door closing, she shoves it wide open.''

The next stop for Sorenstam is induction Monday night into the World Golf Hall of Fame, where she will be joined by Nick Price, the late Leo Diegel and Chako Higuchi, a pioneer on the Japanese LPGA Tour.

Sorenstam earned enough points from the LPGA criteria to qualify for the Hall of Fame nearly three years ago. The final requirement was 10 years on the LPGA Tour, which she completed last week.

Still, she has been too busy getting stronger in the gym, longer off the tee and as close to perfect as golf allows to grasp the magnitude of her achievements.

Sorenstam has been rehearsing her Hall of Fame speech, another example of how far she has come.

She was so shy as a junior that Sorenstam would purposely lose tournaments to avoid having to give a speech.

''I was afraid to get up there,'' she said. ''When I played, the prizes were CD players and other cool things. I wanted the prize, but I didn't want to stand up with parents and other players looking at me. It scared me. I three-putted on purpose a few times, and afterward I would come home and feel bad, because I knew I was better.''

That stopped when she miscalculated the score, won the tournament and gave her speech.

''I hated it,'' she said. ''But once it was over, it wasn't a big deal.''

She never could have imagined going on ''Today'' and ''The Tonight Show,'' or speaking to 400 reporters in the press room at Colonial.

''I'd have to say I changed,'' she said with a laugh.

Sorenstam describes herself as a late bloomer, anyway.

She didn't start playing until she was 12, splitting time with tennis until she became frustrated that the coaches at Kungsangen TK Tennis Club were devoting all their time to two of the best juniors.

''I worked so hard and didn't feel like I got any attention or anything,'' she said. ''So I said, 'Fine, I've had enough.' Golf was the perfect sport. In tennis, you always had to have a partner, and the partner always wanted someone who was a little better. In golf, I could be on my own.''

Each result made her hungrier, and soon she was good enough to get a scholarship to Arizona, where in 1991 she became the first freshman and foreign-born player to win the NCAA women's title.

Success as a pro came quickly, too.

Rookie of the year in Europe in 1993. Rookie of the year on the LPGA Tour in 1994. Player of the year in 1995, when she also won the U.S. Women's Open and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.

''I had success so early, so much and so fast, that I had to take a step back and say, 'Where do you go from here?''' she said. ''I've never been in that situation. I've always been chasing somebody.''

Before long, she was chasing Karrie Webb, who was winning all the majors, all the trophies and most of the money.

Sorenstam began a punishing fitness routine that included weights, aerobics, swimming and kickboxing. She stayed on the practice green until she couldn't see. She studied her statistics in search of a weakness.

Within two years, she became more dominant on the LPGA Tour than Tiger Woods was on the PGA Tour.

And it's only gotten better.

''Some people get to No. 1 and realize they don't want to do what it takes,'' Juli Inkster said. ''Annika has no problem with that. She's always trying to get better.''

For all she has done, Sorenstam's signature moment might be missing the cut at Colonial.

No one has faced more scrutiny for playing, or more pressure over one tee shot. It became even tougher when Vijay Singh said two weeks before the tournament: ''I hope she misses the cut.''

''When I heard that comment, I was like, 'They really don't want me there.' I stepped into their territory,'' she said. ''I never looked at it like that. I want to be like them. To do that, I've got to be there and try it.''

She putted for birdie on every hole and shot a respectable 72, followed by a 3-over 75 to miss the cut by four.

Still, she was a huge hit for her courage and grace.

''People saw who I am,'' she said. ''I love to challenge myself. I'm not afraid of challenges. I have emotions and I love what I do. I was a better player when I left, even though I didn't get to play on the weekend.''

Not even Sorenstam is sure what awaits.

How much longer can she keep this up?

How much harder can she work?

She has hinted that retirement could come sooner than people think.

''It will be sad when I realize that day has come,'' she said. ''But that day, I'll feel like I'm full, complete. And I won't have motivation to practice, to push myself.''



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