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 the Open.
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 over."
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 fiancé, 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.