SHE LOOKED so fragile in those early years: clothes too big, limbs as spindly as autumn twigs. If you stood too close or asked a question that she didn't like, her eyes would blink like butterfly wings. They still do every now and then, a tic that stuck even after she had become the most advanced model of golfer, a trailblazer in an often hidebound game.
Last week at Upper Montclair Country Club, an old-line New Jersey establishment hard by the roaring traffic of Route 3, 37-year-old Annika Sorenstam walked into a makeshift interview room at the Sybase Classic and told the world that she will leave competitive golf at year's end. The announcement, as out of the blue as Sorenstam's first U.S. Women's Open victory in 1995 and coming on the heels of her win at the previous week's Michelob Ultra Open, was a blow to the LPGA, which is just beginning to benefit from the buzz from a classic rivalry between Sorenstam and 26-year-old Lorena Ochoa, who a year ago ended Sorenstam's long reign as the tour's No. 1 player.
But those close to Sorenstam say they knew that the conclusion to a transcendent career was nigh, due in large part to the toll spent building herself into perhaps the greatest female golfer ever.
"Last year I knew it was getting close to the end," says Terry McNamara, Sorenstam's longtime caddie. "It was the constant strain of keeping up with her own expectations. For her it had never been work, and it was starting to become work."
Sorenstam also cited other life factors, including her coming marriage to Mike McGee in January, her desire to start a family and her interest in the business side of the game. But the physical and mental grind of her longtime dominance was becoming increasingly wearing. Two years ago, as she prepared to play in the U.S. Women's Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, she felt a twinge that traveled from her neck down her arm. If not for a fog delay wiping out her round and giving her a chance to rest, McNamara says, "we might not have been able to tee it up."
Though Sorenstam won her third Open that week, other injuries began to test her. Last year, after being diagnosed as having ruptured and bulging disks, she missed nearly two months, during which time Ochoa supplanted her atop the world ranking. Sorenstam, who has been for women's golf fitness what Tiger Woods has been for conditioning on the PGA Tour, seemed to be breaking down.
"I know she's been talking about [retirement] for a few years, and I think she thought she might [leave] last year," says Karrie Webb, a longtime Sorenstam foil. "I'm sure with the injury that she had, she probably didn't want to finish on that note. She's already had a great year, so it would not matter how she played the rest of the year. She's proved to herself—which is probably the most important thing—that she can come back from that injury and play well."
Through the early part of 2008 Ochoa and Sorenstam have engaged in golf's version of Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert. Sorenstam has three wins and Ochoa six, including a major. At the Michelob, Sorenstam wore down Ochoa and everybody else, surging to a seven-shot victory, the 72nd of her career. Ochoa responded by stealing some of the spotlight from Sorenstam on the week she announced her retirement, taking a one-shot victory at the Sybase (page G8).
"Annika has been my motivation," Ochoa says. "I'm going to miss her."
HOW MANY pro athletes can walk away in their prime? Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax could, and just last week Justine Henin, the No. 1 player in women's tennis, quit on the spot. While Brown and Koufax are exceptions to the legion of male athletes who persevere with deteriorating skills—taking a few more punches to the head, hearing footsteps in the pocket, missing fastballs by a foot—Sorenstam says she can let go despite sitting only 16 victories shy of Kathy Whitworth's alltime LPGA record of 88, one of the more hallowed marks in golf. To some, Sorenstam's retiring this year is like Woods's ending his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major titles to take up the viola. But maybe that's just it. Maybe women have an easier time viewing themselves as successes away from the arena. Maybe women are simply smarter.