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The Evolution Of Annika

By Steve Eubanks   •   August 14, 2017

Everyone had their “Conference Call Bingo” cards ready. Who just joined? Did we lose somebody? Missed that last point in the crosstalk. I’m sorry that (dog barking, child screaming, doorbell clanging, fire alarm announcing the end of mankind) was me Such were the affairs of modern business. A phone line opened through the magic of a few touched buttons at the prompting of a soothing computerized voice, followed by the awkward silence of a large-scale meeting where no one could see anyone else.

It was like attending an orientation in the dark, only worse because no one knew where their fellow participants were or if they were even clothed, a situation bound to promote stilted and stammering conversation. But by 2017, conferences from a den or kitchen or basement-turned-office were as ubiquitous as bitter coffee and watercooler gossip in the ancient times of the 20th century. No one thought twice about having a dozen people from far-flung regions around the globe on the line to ask the Solheim Cup captain a few questions. The setup wasn’t ideal – it’s always better to converse eye-to-eye – but in today’s culture it had become as common as corn in Iowa.

“Hello, everybody, this is Annika Sörenstam,” the captain of Team Europe said when the lines opened. A chorus of “Hi’s” erupted, which prompted the 46-year-old mother of two to say: “Is there no moderator? No?… OK, we can do this on our own. Let’s get started. If you have questions, just fire away.”

For the next half hour Sörenstam took charge, managing her own virtual press conference with charm, wit, wisdom, thoroughness, a perfect ear for how her words would look in print, and the kind of command presence that those who have known her for the last decade have come to expect.

With Suzann Pettersen at the 2015 Solheim Cup

“I think being a good captain means knowing your team,” she said early in the session, going well beyond the sound-bite answer that no one would have begrudged her. “I know that sounds obvious but how do they react and how do they want to be approached? What makes them tick? And how can I, together with the leadership team, inspire these players just by knowing them?”

Like the mechanics of a good backswing, leadership skills can be taught and learned. Voice modulation (always project a sense of calm), optimism, setting an example (show, don’t tell), absorbing criticism toward yourself but deflecting praise toward your team, managing the details (make sure your team has the tools it needs to excel), listening without vacillating once a decision has been made, rallying everyone around a clear and simple mission, fighting for those around you, letting your experts excel: Sörenstam has blossomed in all these areas, even though some of them come as unnaturally to her as human flight.

“It’s such an honor,” Sörenstam said in a recent one-on-one chat. “The key, for me at least, is to have a good working relationship and be completely transparent with the players. I’m a big believer in preparation so my goal is to be ready, to make sure there are no surprises and the players have everything taken care of so they can focus on playing their very best.”

She believes it, but that response could have come from cue cards or talking points. There is one tenet of leadership, however, that the Solheim Cup captain embraces in her core, one where she leans closer and thrusts her shoulders back, something that drives her passion and brightens the spark in her eyes. You only need listen to her for a few minutes for some version of the Latin root inspirare to come up. Inspiring others, a phrase athletes throw out as often as the “you knows” and “it is what it is” verbal ticks, has become far more than a catchphrase or pat answer for Sörenstam. It is her calling, a mission she embraces with the fervor of a revivalist.

At a demonstration during a junior clinic to local children ahead of the 2016 Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Open in Abu Dhabi

“Everything that we do now,” she said more than once, punching each syllable. “Everything is about giving back and paying forward, providing inspiration to the next generation. My business tagline is ‘More than Golf,’ but it’s not a slogan. Whether it’s the junior tournaments, the foundation and everything that goes with that, the (Annika) Academy, the college event, clothing, (golf course) design, whatever I’m doing has to inspire others to be their best, to work hard to be as good as they can be. It has to reflect who I am. I drive it and I live it.”

Her voice gets higher and more emphatic and she touches you for the first time, a tap on the arm. Are you listening? Pay attention as she reels off the list of things that drive her passion: the Annika Invitationals, four junior events in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and China with a fifth on the drawing board for Abu Dhabi; the Annika Cup, a match-play competition in Sweden for young girls ages 13 to 15; the Annika Intercollegiate, a college tournament that, according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking, has a stronger field than the NCAA Championship; and the Annika Award presented to the outstanding female collegiate golfer every year, an award that, like the Fred Haskins Award on the men’s side, figures to long outlive its namesake.

Her influence can be seen at the Junior Solheim Cup, a girls’ match-play competition held before the larger contest, where 22 of the 24 juniors participating this year have played in one or more of the Annika Invitationals.

Offering a clinic at the Annika Invitational Europe

“She goes to every one of those tournaments (that bear her name) and the girls hang on her every word,” Sörenstam’s husband, Mike McGee, said. “It means the world to her because it is, truly, so much more than golf. We have media training, she talks about nutrition, fitness, the importance of education, the mental side, overcoming fear, fighting through setbacks, discipline, determination: she uses her story to teach it all. So far, we’ve impacted over 450 girls from 43 different countries. We have 315 of them playing Division I (college) golf right now.”

Sörenstam’s inspirational crusade has been going on long enough that the universe of people she has impacted extends far beyond junior golfers.

Sophie Gustafson, Ana Sanchez, Iben Tinning, Sörenstam, Janice Moodie and Carin Koch at the 2003 Solheim Cup

“She put it in our minds that we, as Swedes, could become the best golfers in the world,” said Pernilla Lindberg, a 31-year-old former competitive skier from Bollnas, Sweden, in her eighth season on the LPGA Tour. “We’d had top (Swedish) players before. So, I don’t think you’ll get the same stories from (current) Swedish players that you get from the Korean players about Se Ri Pak because we’d had other players that we looked up to.” Those included major champions like Liselotte Neumann and Helen Alfredsson; an assortment of winners from the LPGA and Ladies European Tour like Sophie Gustafson, Catrin Nilsmark, Carin Koch; and the dean of Swedish women’s golf, Pia Nilsson, who captained the 1998 European Solheim Cup team. “They showed us that we could go to the U.S. and play. But Annika showed us that even a little girl who grew up in cold-weather Sweden could be the very best,” Lindberg said. “That was the impact she had.”

Sörenstam wasn’t just the best in the world in her time. She was arguably the greatest of all time. The numbers are staggering: 72 LPGA victories, 89 wins worldwide and 10 major championships in 15 seasons with a record eight Rolex Player of the Year awards and a record six Vare Trophies for low stroke average. She was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2003, 2004 and 2005, years when Serena Williams won two U.S. Opens and a Wimbledon singles title, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and company won gold in the Athens Olympics and Maria Sharapova burst onto the scene. Annika eclipsed them all. And it wasn’t that close. She had three victories or more in 12 different seasons with eight LPGA wins in 2001 and 11 in 2002.

With Juli Inkster at the 2015 Solheim Cup

“She was really, really good,” said Juli Inkster, the two-time American Solheim Cup captain. Inkster, who never offers faint praise, had a few run-ins with Sörenstam over the years, including at the 2015 Solheim Cup in Germany. Inkster thought her fellow Hall of Famer, who served as a vice captain to fellow Swede Koch, had given advice to some of Europe’s players during the matches in violation of the rules. “I felt like I needed to stand up for my team and I did,” Inkster said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve always gotten along. I think she always respected me, especially with me raising two kids while playing out here.

“But she’s a helluva golfer, man. She was sneaky long and her iron game was amazing. There was no right-to-left, no left-to-right. Those (iron) shots were like lasers. There wasn’t a pin Annika didn’t feel comfortable attacking. For her, a bad day was hitting 14 greens and averaging 15 feet (from the hole). When she putted good, she beat us. When she putted great, she beat us by 10.”

Today, Sörenstam is the LPGA’s version of Paul McCartney, golf royalty who causes the best in today’s game to stop what they’re doing when she walks by, even though many modern players never saw her hit a shot. “We just missed each other,” Lindberg said. “In the fall of 2008, I played in the LET event in Sweden as an amateur for the last time. That was just after Annika announced her retirement. So, going into the event, everyone in Sweden knew that it would be Annika’s last time playing, which made it incredibly special. That event was the only time I got to be around her (as a player).

Pernilla Lindberg

“Sitting at home in Sweden, I didn’t get to watch much women’s golf because there wasn’t a lot of it on television. Even if there had been (coverage), it would have been on in the middle of the night. So, I got a few minutes of updates on morning TV, which was usually news that Annika had won another title. Every week, ‘Annika won another title.’ It was just a given that she was going to win or be in contention every week.

Stories of great ballstrikers grow with time, especially after their deaths. In 36-hole matches, Bob Jones worried that during the second round he might hit tee shots into his previous divots. Byron Nelson hit so many flagsticks that he started aiming away from them. Ben Hogan’s caddie once lost a ball in the sun while shagging shots and not only did Hogan hit him in the head, before the beleaguered caddie could get up from his knees, the Hawk hit him in the head again. Yarns or not, those stories carry just enough credence to still be told in locker rooms around the world.

With Annika, everybody is still alive to verify them. “I’ve caddied since 1979 and I’ve never seen anyone that accurate,” said Terry McNamara, who was on Annika’s bag from 1999 until her retirement. “I lived 50 miles from her so every other day when we were home I’d drive down to Lake Nona (in Orlando) for practice. I brought a catcher’s mitt to shag balls and (from her wedges) through a 6-iron, unless it was windy, I never had to move more than a step. One step right, catch it. One step left, catch the next one.

“One day I pulled a bench out onto the range and sat there with my catcher’s mitt while she hit pitching wedge. For 10 shots in a row, I never had to stand up or move on the bench. That’s how she practiced. She practiced accuracy. She practiced rhythm.

“I see people on the range today and they might be out there six hours but they’re talking half the time. When Annika went to work, it was work. We might only be there for four hours but there wasn’t any ‘How’s your mom?’ stuff. She dialed in and that was it.”

Stories of the focus and precision are legendary. “I never really saw anybody in the gallery,” Sörenstam said. “Early in my career, I was on a budget so I would stay in (private) housing. The families were nice and they usually lived on the golf course so you didn’t have to rent a car. And I always knew that I would have fans, even if nobody else knew me. But there were times when I’d come back in and ask the family: ‘Did you get out to the tournament today?’ And they’d say, ‘You didn’t see us? We were right there.’ I would say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,’ because I didn’t. I saw my next shot and that was pretty much it.”

Valerie Hogan supposedly followed Ben during The Masters one year and when the round was over Ben said, “Did you see me hit any shots today?” The story goes that Valerie said, “I saw you hit all of them. I walked every hole. You didn’t see me?” Ben said, “I guess I didn’t,” and Valerie didn’t follow him again. Both the Hogans have passed away. Annika and the families who followed her eagerly confirm her stories.

“In the mid-’90s, they played a made-for-TV event at Aviara (Golf Club in Carlsbad, Calif.),” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said. “When I was (working) with TaylorMade I lived at Aviara so I walked 10 or 12 holes with Annika. Now, this was when she was at the height of her career. But this was also not a real serious event. Players and caddies were relaxing and taking in the scenery – there are a lot of visual distractions out there – because it was OK not to play perfect golf. Not Annika. She was locked in to what she was doing. Even the scenery around Aviara couldn’t distract her. She was completely focused on birdieing every hole. It was noticeably different from the other players. I remember driving out of there thinking, you can’t get into her head.”

Whan didn’t get to know Sörenstam on a personal level until he became commissioner in 2010, a little more than a year after Annika retired. “I put together an advisory committee,” he said. That committee included former LPGA commissioner and Arnold Palmer confidant Charlie Mechem; former JCPenney chairman W.R. Howell, Herb Lotman, the man responsible for frozen hamburgers at McDonalds, and, as Whan put it, “a couple of top players who were no longer playing because, early on, I didn’t need to be asking stupid questions to players who were currently on tour.”

The two players on Whan’s committee were Nancy Lopez and Sörenstam. “We had a call every two months and got together once or twice a year,” the commissioner said. “I was trying silly things – events without purses and what would eventually become the UL International Crown – so they were trying to keep me on the edge of the cliff without going over it. Annika and Nancy gave me an invaluable perspective on what it was like to be on tour.”

Whan also called on Sörenstam for a job he knew she would relish. “Once we moved a lot of our player development and orientation down to the Symetra Tour, I asked Annika to come in and talk about fitness and nutrition while you’re traveling and playing a full schedule,” Whan said. “Of course, she agreed. But I’m speaking right before her and probably half the group had their cell phones out checking texts or updating their social media accounts. Then Annika walks in and it was like Adele had taken the stage. Everybody sat up straight and there were no wandering eyes. Just her presence drew them in.”

Whan also credits Sörenstam with one of the LPGA Tour’s most important business relationships. “Annika had a great friendship with Terry Duffy (chairman of CME Group) and had played in his pro-am for a long time,” the commissioner said. “So, I went to her and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going to Terry about sponsoring a tournament but I don’t know Terry. Can you give me any advice?’

“Annika was the calming voice when Terry asked me, ‘Why do I need a golf tournament? I’ve got the best players (in my pro-am), my customers are happy and I’m not spending a million dollars on a purse.’ That’s how a lot of meetings with Terry start. But because I was with Annika – she’d invited me down – things got better after that. I give her a lot of credit. That (meeting) led to the CME Group Tour Championship and later to the Race to the CME Globe.”

Then Whan paused in deep thought, as if ponding an inconceivable concept. “I hear that she was different,” he said. “She’s so amiable and open, so easy to reach, it’s hard for me to imagine her being any other way.”

During the Bank of America Colonial at the Colonial Country Club.

Different is not exactly the best descriptor. Everyone changes. Everybody matures, and grows. The character of every adult is built on the scar tissue of regret. But before Sörenstam became Annika, joining the stratospheric company of one-name athletes like Serena, Tiger and Ali; before she became the kind of icon that a company like MasterCard would use in television ads a full nine years after she hit her last shot in competition; before she would be the kind of role model that the LPGA commissioner would say “answers the question a lot of players think about a lot but won’t ask out loud, which is: ‘What’s next? When this ends, will I be able to apply this experience (of being a tour player) somewhere else?’ They struggle with that in silence. Annika provides the example and the answer;” and before motherhood and meetings about things like brand maintenance, she was, in many ways, another person altogether.

But unlike many people who shed their youthful skins, Annika’s transformation wasn’t gradual or evolutionary. It happened in an instant, with one seminal moment in an historic event that transcended golf and connected the world with Tom and Gunilla Sörenstam’s daughter, the quiet girl from a tiny, cold-weather town.

‘Product Of A Perfect Storm’

Its most famous building is the Lutheran church, a fieldstone-and-brick structure dating back to the 12th century, painted white to contrast with the trimmed hedges and pea-gravel walkways, and to catch the morning sun off the Baltic Sea. Anywhere else in the world it could pass as a large barn, but in Bro, Sweden, a town the size of Emmett, Idaho, the Bro Kyrka is a source of great pride. So is the Lejondals Slott, a boutique hotel with an award-winning restaurant on the shores of Lejondalssjön. And then there’s the Bro-Balsta Golfklubb, which has hosted several large (by Scandinavian standards) golf events and can boast as being the original club of the world’s greatest female golfer.

The Sörenstams played golf but it wasn’t their top sport. Tom, a product manager at IBM who caught the rail line and, occasionally, the E18 into Stockholm to work, played competitive team handball, the fast and compelling sport that is foreign to most Americans except during the Olympics. Played on a basketball court with what look like small volleyballs and even smaller soccer nets, the game is indoor lacrosse without the sticks. Tom Sörenstam played it with a passion and intensity that his daughters, Annika and her younger sister, Charlotta, took for granted. When the family wasn’t watching Tom’s games, they were playing tennis or basketball, where Gunilla excelled, and, occasionally, golf.

Arm-wrestling with sister Charlotta

The girls took to tennis and Annika, the quieter and more intense of the two girls, studied the great matches of her countryman, Björn Borg, who not only shared the young Annika’s competitiveness, but also her demeanor. Stoic, quiet and a model of efficiency and precision, Borg was everything Annika hoped to be, including No. 1 in the world.

For a while, the girls lived in London – Tom was transferred there for three years when Annika was 10 and Charlotta hadn’t quite turned 8 – so their English and their tennis improved. When they got back to Sweden, Annika rose in the national junior rankings until her opponents got smarter. A strong server with an aggressive move to the net, Annika had a marginal backhand that girls began to exploit. As soon as it became obvious that she would probably never be a world champion on the courts, Annika tossed the tennis racquet and applied all her intensity to the other sport she played with her family: golf.

“I played everything,” Annika said. “Skiing, soccer, volleyball, badminton, tennis, table tennis, Ultimate Frisbee: Sports were our thing. I started playing golf when I was 12 and really took it seriously when I was 16.”

The game appealed to Annika’s insular nature and the precision that seemed to be part of every aspect of her life. “Big Blue,” as IBM was called at the time, was a company of dark suits, white shirts, smart ties and men obsessed with detail. That described Tom Sörenstam perfectly. “Tom’s very smart,” McGee, who married Annika in 2009, said of his father-in-law. “He’s a numbers guy. He doesn’t say a lot but when he speaks you listen.”

Annika certainly listened to her father. One afternoon when the cold rain blew down from the Gulf of Bothnia, Annika did what most smart kids would: she packed up the clubs and called her dad for a ride home. Tom picked her up but as they were riding away, Annika glanced out the window and saw several of her friends hitting balls in the rain. After a few long seconds where the only sound was the squeech of the wipers on the windshield, Tom said, “Annika, there are no shortcuts.”

It’s a story she tells at every junior clinic. The girls always perk up. She also asks her junior students, “What are your goals?” One of her juniors said recently, “I don’t know. They’re in my dad’s computer.” Annika laughed but only for a second. “They can’t be your dad’s goals,” she said. “It’s OK for him to write them down but they have to be your goals. You have to own them. They have to be here,” she touched her heart, “and here,” and then her head.

“Gunilla is very smart and hard-working as well,” McGee said of his mother-in-law. “They’re both organized and disciplined but she’s really organized. And they’re both fiercely competitive. They’ll slit your throat for a fifty-cent Nassau. So, Annika got it from all sides. She’s the product of a perfect storm.”

Tom also told his daughter not to worry about being quiet and reserved. “Let your clubs do the talking,” he said. And she did. Under the tutelage of Henri Reis, one of the Sweden’s top instructors, Annika excelled quickly, although she didn’t win many junior tournaments early on. Tom suspected something was amiss, so he noticed that Annika would be leading late but would three-putt the last hole or two to lose. Afterward she looked relieved, sometimes relaxing. Then Tom noticed her smile as the winner had to stand in front of the field and make a small acceptance speech. That’s when he picked up the flaw in his daughter’s code. Quietly, Tom pulled the junior golf organizers aside and asked that, from that point forward, both the winner and runner-up be required to make a speech. Once it became obvious that she was going to have to speak anyway, Annika started to win.

Tom (Sorenstam) also told his daughter not to worry about being quiet and reserved. “Let your clubs do the talking,” he said. And she did.

She never became talkative, which cost on her some fronts. “She didn’t win any international junior tournaments, ever, because she was scared to give speeches,” said Pia Nilsson, who coached the Swedish amateur team at the time. “But you could tell that she was going to be great because she would say to herself, ‘I’m going to be good at this thing, like hitting driver,’ and she’d work at it until she was great. Then she would say, ‘I’m going to be good at this other thing,’ and she’d focus on it until she had that part of the game, too. And then, ‘I’m going to be good at this third thing.’ Suddenly, she was good at everything.

“Her biggest asset was, once something made sense to her, she put it into action right away. There was no delay. She didn’t say, ‘I’m going to try this for a little while.’ Once she was convinced of something, she did it right then. ‘Oh, I need to hit my irons closer. OK, let’s work on distance control until I hit them right on the number. I need to work my nutrition? I’ll do that right now. I need to get stronger. OK, let’s get stronger right now.’ The journey never stopped because her goals were always to see how close to perfect she could get.

“She had a curiosity about excellence. How close could a human being get to perfect? Annika was determined to answer that question.”

She wasn’t a total introvert. In small groups, she could be witty, often leading the group when it came to pranks. At the 1990 World Amateur Team Championships in New Zealand, Annika was the one who put itching powder in Nilsson’s uniform pants before the opening ceremonies. She was also the one at the European Team Championships who tricked Nilsson into wearing knee-high socks to a banquet where the team broke into a song about the Swedish character Pippy Longstocking.

“Once she was comfortable in a setting, she was hilarious,” Nilsson said.

Those comfortable settings were sparse, though. She felt at home in Bro, where she spent summers mowing tees and fringes on the golf course maintenance crew. She even had one stint as a caddie at a European Tour event in Stockholm. “It was Charlotta, me and (Nick Faldo’s eventual caddie) Fanny Sunesson waiting in the parking lot for players with the other local caddies,” Annika said. “We were the last ones chosen. But my guy changed balls every other hole, so I left with about 30 new balata balls, which was a big deal.” But beyond the confines of home and her local national team, she was all but invisible, the wallflower with the meek voice you might hear once or twice a day.

She wasn’t highly recruited by American colleges, a fact most coaches, in hindsight, try to brush aside. When she got to the University of Arizona in Tucson in August 1990, it felt as though she’d landed on another planet. “It was so hot,” Annika said. “They had these thunderstorms and no rain, which I didn’t understand. I got to my dorm room with my golf bag and one suitcase and my roommate showed up with a U-Haul. I remember her father looking at me and saying, ‘We’re going to Target.’ I didn’t know what Target was but he obviously felt sorry for me and took me to get stuff. I remember, I couldn’t remember the English word for ‘pillow,’ so I was pantomiming that I needed a pillow. It was quite a transition.”

During the 1992 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Kemper Lakes Golf Club.

Those who knew her weren’t the least bit surprised that she hoped to become a chemical engineer. Of course, she did. Nothing fit her personality better. Mix an isotope here with a molecule there and the outcome was as predictable as rain from a thunderstorm, except when it wasn’t. Annika had a stubborn streak when it came to things that didn’t make sense. The words, “because that’s the way we do things” didn’t sit well with her. Logic was absolute. One plus one equaled two, whether you did things that way in Arizona or not. A clash was inevitable, especially in a state that thumbs its nose at the rest of the country by refusing to roll the clocks forward and back for daylight saving time. So, when the academic office told her during her sophomore year that all her chemistry and engineering credits from Sweden wouldn’t transfer and she’d be required to start over with 101-level classes, she had no trouble recalling the British expression: Not bloody likely. She left at the end of the academic year.

“I turned pro but I didn’t qualify (for the LPGA Tour) my first year,” Annika said. “I had conditional status. They didn’t have qualifying for the (Ladies European Tour) at the time so I played there and I Monday qualified (on the LPGA) to get into the first four events. That toughened me up because it was 18 holes and you’re either in or you’re out. I remember it was a lot to deal with.”

Like any young person in the early fits and starts of a professional career, she questioned whether she’d made the right move. School was safe. Like mercury or uranium, amateur golf was a known quantity. She could have remained at Arizona, bitten the bullet and taken what, for her, would have been remedial courses, played another year or two, gotten a degree and had options. Instead, she was out on her own. Her management company was booking as many outings as possible but she wasn’t exactly a marquee draw. Very few people knew her and those who did couldn’t remember a single thing she’d ever said.

Then two things happened early in her professional life that she saw as signs. First, she got sponsor exemptions into three LPGA events in Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas. She finished in the top 10 in all three, which earned her enough money to improve her status and secure her card for the following year. Next, she was summoned to Carlsbad, Calif., to meet an avuncular old man from Georgia named Ely Callaway, a former textile magnate and winemaker who had turned to making golf equipment and was pouring money into the women’s game.

In a boardroom, next to his office and within site of the game’s most cutting-edge testing center, Annika sat and listened as Mr. Callaway hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, leaned back in his camel-leather chair and said, “We want to take care of you so that you don’t have to worry about anything but playing golf. We’ll always take care of you.” She didn’t cry on the spot but it was close.

“He was like my grandpa,” she said of Callaway. “He cared so much for everyone. … When I first came out on tour I wasn’t sure I could win a single golf tournament. Then, you win a few and you start to believe.”

Win she did. At the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor, Sörenstam was five back going into the final round but shot 2 under and waited an hour while Meg Mallon stumbled down the stretch. “I remember sitting in the (television) booth watching Meg hit a 20-footer that would have tied,” Annika said. “When she missed, I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t know what to expect.”

After winning the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open

The painfully shy girl from Bro was suddenly the biggest thing in women’s golf, a major champion in her second year on tour, one of a select few who had made the U.S. Women’s Open, the biggest event in the women’s game, their first career victory. She was ready for the inside-the-ropes stuff. The hoopla of being a major champion was something else entirely.

“It changed my life immediately,” he said. “Just like that people wanted to know where I lived, what I ate, how I practiced. It was amazing and little scary.”

Once airborne, Annika hustled to the lavatory where she latched the door, fell to her knees and threw up.

She handled it the way most introverts would. On the Southwest Airlines flight from Colorado Springs to Phoenix, she strapped into seat 36C with the trophy in her lap just in time for the captain to come on the intercom to announce that they had the new U.S. Women’s Open champion on board. “Everyone give her a hand,” he said. Of course, every eye turned to row 36 and the girl who wanted nothing more than to crawl under 35C and die. Passengers applauded and cheered. A couple of foreign arms reached around the seat and patted her on the shoulders while her heart rate teetered on the edge of tachycardia. Golf was different. Once inside the ropes, she could block out everything outside of them. People on the other side of the yellow nylon were peripheral, like blurs in another lane. She didn’t need to see them or hear them so she didn’t. But in the real world, where major champions flew on the same planes as fans, all the anxieties from those days in Sweden when she would intentionally three-putt came roaring back.

Once airborne, Annika hustled to the lavatory where she latched the door, fell to her knees and threw up.

“I came home to my little apartment in Phoenix and my answering machine was blinking like crazy,” she said. “I never got any calls but the machine was full. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. But I was supposed to go to New York the next day (for the next LPGA event). So, I called the following morning and withdrew. It wasn’t 20 minutes later that I got a call from (then commissioner) Charlie Mechem. He said, ‘You’re the U.S. Open champion and this might not be what you want to do. You’re heading to the largest media market in the country. They’re going to profile you on television.’ I didn’t know anything about that but I knew that I was too tired to give it my best. And if I couldn’t play my best, I didn’t want to play. Showing up just to be there wasn’t me. So, I said to Charlie, ‘When I come to an event, I’m there to perform. And I know I can’t perform my best because I’m exhausted. I’m here for the long term. I have to make decisions based on the fact that I want to be out here for a long time.’ Charlie said, ‘Well, what do you say to that?’ ”

Then she laughed and said, “Charlie is on my foundation board now. We laugh about that call quite often.”

Her long-term game plan worked well. She won two more events in 1995 and captured the money title. Then she won the U.S. Women’s Open again in 1996 in a blur. “I was so focused that I was on cruise control,” Annika said. “I won by six (over Kris Tschetter). When I finished my 72nd hole, I walked off the green to go to the scoring area and walked right through a bunker. I don’t remember doing it. That’s how much I had tuned out everything around me. But that’s also when I thought I was playing up to my expectations.”

Her dominance only grew from there. She won twice more in 1996 then had a six-win season in 1997, four wins in 1998, two more in 1999 and the best was yet to come. But was she good for the women’s game? Fans were split. When Annika put on the big Oakley sunglasses and pulled the cap low on her forehead, she could have passed for either the female version of the Terminator or Mrs. Unabomber. Smiles seemed budgeted and forced. The only things more rationed than a genuine grin were her words, which fell like soft crumbs from the mouth of a stingy bird. One fan of Annika’s who played with her in a pro-am during that time (and who has since become her close friend) said, “In 18 holes of golf she said six words and five of them were ‘Hello’ and ‘Nice playing with you.’ ” Yet, those who knew her insisted that she was the nicest person on earth.

“She was quiet and professional, sure, but she was also the classiest and most caring person you’ll ever meet,” McNamara said. “But she was also still shy little Annika Sörenstam from Bro. Even though her golf game was world class and dominant, the other part of her was still out of place in the spotlight.”

That spotlight only grew brighter. A year-and-a-half after hiring McNamara, a time when, he said, “We were still working out the fine points of the relationship,” Annika became the first woman to reach golf’s gold standard.

“That was March of 2001,” McNamara said. “The year before she’d won five events. That was the most I’d ever won as a caddie. But afterward she wrote me a nice note saying, ‘Five wins is good but we’re here to win majors. That’s the goal.’ Not many players do that sort of thing today. But that’s the kind of person she always was and will always be.

The Standard Register Ping wasn’t a major but she still played to win. “We’d played in the afternoon (on Thursday) and shot 69, which was good,” McNamara said. “But that Friday, I was running a little late so I was out of sorts. When I got to the range, I realized that she was running late, too. So, she started warming up and it was terrible. I asked her what was wrong and she said she’d been running late and wasn’t focused on it yet. In the parking lot after the warmup, I said, ‘Hey, this is the important day. This (the morning part of the draw) is when we make up ground. Go to the clubhouse and let’s get our work right today.’ She went to the locker room, I went to the putting green, and we were off.”

A little more than four hours later, standing in the ninth fairway, her final hole of the day, Sörenstam and McNamara knew they were on the cusp of history. “It was a different kind of zone that day,” Annika said. “I remember those shots I hit and the putts I had. But it was like the game was easy.”

Her caddie didn’t feel quite so at ease. “I was a little jumpy, sort of the like a pitcher on the verge of throwing a no-hitter,” McNamara said. “You’re doing your job but between shots you’re jumpy. On the ninth, there’s a pond about 220 (yards) out and then water wraps in front of the green. So, we hit less club off that tee and striped it down the middle. From there we had a number for a pitching wedge but she wanted to hit 54 (degree wedge) because she was so pumped up. There was a hillside left, which would have been a terrible up-and-down, so I said, ‘We’re going to hit this thing 10 feet right of the hole.’ She said, ‘Nope, I’m going right at it. I want to shoot 58.’ That’s totally her. Here I am wanting to hang onto history and she’s wanting to improve on it.”

Annika flew the 54-degree wedge 14 feet behind the hole and two-putted for a 59.

“It wasn’t easy afterward,” McNamara said. “This was history but she was still pretty shy. Somebody wanted to do a television interview afterward but she still had the weekend to play. She’s still dialed in to winning the tournament (which she did). So that was tough. She hadn’t had this evolution yet to become an ambassador for the women’s game.”

That evolution, the “change” for Annika, would come two years later when she was arguably the most dominant woman in the history of the game.

‘Don’t Know What I’ve Got Into’

Before he became Tiger Woods’ right-hand man, Mark Steinberg was known as IMG’s LPGA agent, working side by side with Jay Burton, the agency’s head of women’s golf, to handle clients like Karrie Webb, Nancy Lopez and Sörenstam. So, in early 2003, it fell to Steinberg, who had inherited Woods from Hughes Norton by that point, to bring all the moving parts together. The agent reached out to Dee Finley, a founding partner in Harris, Finley & Bogle, one of the most respected real-estate and banking law practices in Fort Worth, Texas, who also happened to be the tournament chairman for the PGA Tour’s Bank of America Colonial.

Steinberg’s conversation got right to the point. After winning 19 times in two years, dominating the women’s game like no one since the LPGA’s founding, Sörenstam needed a new challenge, something to test her game and push her further. A spot in a PGA Tour event should do the trick. Colonial, the kind of golf course that favored precision over length. It fit Annika’s game and the May date fell nicely between the Kraft Nabisco (now the ANA Inspiration) and the U.S. Women’s Open.

Annika hadn’t come up with the idea. A 13-year-old Hawaii girl named Michelle Wie had tried to qualify for the Sony Open near her home in Honolulu, and while Wie had shot 1-over 73 and failed to make it, she had beaten 49 men in the qualifying field. Suzy Whaley (current vice president of the PGA of America) would also be teeing it up on the PGA Tour in 2003, having earned a spot in the Greater Hartford Open by winning the Connecticut PGA section championship. So, when a reporter asked Annika in January if she’d accept an invitation to play in a PGA Tour event, she said, “In a heartbeat.” It was an off-handed but honest answer. She’d accomplished so much in the women’s game that the next logical step was to test her game against the best men in the world. Little could she have known what that three-word answer would spark, not just in the game but in herself.

Finley was all for the idea, especially given the way Tiger’s schedule had sucked most of the oxygen out of the rest of the PGA Tour. If the Big Cat was in your field, you were the toast of the sports world for the week. But if Tiger didn’t play, you could barely get an inch of coverage in your local paper. Golf existed in the national consciousness when Tiger teed it up. Tiger didn’t play Colonial. A proud group of Texans with a rich history in the game needed something to turn the spotlight back in their direction. Finley thought Annika would do the trick. He wasn’t so sure that the members at Colonial would agree, though, so he held off giving Steinberg an answer.

That sent the agent on another path. Steinberg called Dockery Clark, the Bank of America marketing executive responsible for the sponsor’s investment in the tournament. Ms. Clark thought that extending Annika an invitation was a great idea but on tournament matters, she deferred to Finley. In short order the attorney decided that member attitudes aside, Annika Sörenstam was as deserving of a sponsor exemption as anyone.

With very few exceptions, almost everyone agreed. A couple of cranks, Vijay Singh among them, criticized Sörenstam for taking a spot away from some guy who might be trying to make it on the PGA Tour, but his was a lone voice in the wilderness. “Annika at Colonial” was never “The Battle of the Sexes,” because most men pulled for her as hard or harder than the women. Jack Nicklaus said he thought she would make the cut. Phil Mickelson thought she had a shot at finishing in the top 25.

“When she told me she was going to do it, I said, ‘Are you sure? You know it’s going to be crazy,” McNamara said. “She told me, ‘I think it will make me a better player.’ That’s what it was about for her. It wasn’t about making a statement or about men vs. women. She thought it would make her better. It was the next step for her, the next rung of the ladder. So, I just said, OK, let’s get to work.”

She prepared as meticulously as she ever had, studying the course, the distances, and the topography of the greens. By the time the third week of May rolled around, she was as physically and mentally ready as she had ever been for a golf tournament. But she still had no idea what was coming.

Facing the media throng at the 2003 Bank of America Colonial

“The first day, I was supposed to meet her in front of the clubhouse,” McNamara said. “I walked up the stairs by the Hogan statue, turned the corner and it was a mob scene. I couldn’t move. I hadn’t learned to text yet – this was 2003, remember – but I kept seeing this message on my phone and I didn’t know how to retrieve it. Finally, the Callaway rep, Barry Lyda, found me and said, ‘Annika is on the range in a van. She’ll meet you there.’ And that was just the first day.”

By Thursday, 600 credentialed media and an estimated 20,000 people were on site. Annika had been on 60 MinutesEntertainment Tonight, virtually every major newscast and had been the subject of countless stories and editorials in everything from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times to the Jerusalem Post and Der Spiegel.

“Four months of build-up and all the attention,” Annika said 14 years later, shaking her head as if she still couldn’t believe it. “I just saw myself playing in the event. I had been No. 1 for a while so I was constantly looking for ways to make myself better. I was always pushing myself. When this opportunity came up, I thought it was a motivator, a new way to challenge myself. I didn’t expect it to take on a life of its own.

“Suddenly, people who didn’t play golf had opinions about my game. I said to Terry, ‘I don’t know what I’ve got into.’ So, yeah, I was very nervous.”

So was McNamara, who said, “It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. Our practices had been great. All the men had stopped to watch her hit balls and wish her good luck, which was incredible. But 20 minutes before (the Thursday morning tee time) we were hitting balls on the range and I was cleaning clubs. When I looked up, I just saw this overwhelmed face. I’d never seen that out of her before and I never saw it again. It was just so big. I said to her, ‘We’re as prepared as we can be. And no matter what happens, we’re not going to die. We can do this.’ She nodded and said, ‘Yep, we can.’ ”

A few minutes later, on the putting green, Pia Nilsson delivered a similar message. “At the time, she had a cat named Nelson,” Nilsson said. “So, when she saw me on the putting green she walked over but couldn’t really speak she was so nervous. So, I said, ‘No matter what happens, Nelson will still love you.’ She took a big sigh and headed to the tee.”

“People were hanging out of trees,” McNamara said. “They were everywhere. It was just this sea of people. Annika is such a great preparer that she had the timing of her preshot routine down to the second. Well, she normally hit 4-wood 225 (yards). The creek (across the 10th fairway at Colonial) was at 280. She must have hit that 4-wood 265. But she hit the preshot timing right on the number. It was perfect.”

After an opening 71 and a day of “Go Annika” cheers from the throngs, she said, “I know I can play. The question is, ‘Can I play when everybody is looking?’ ” She answered that question, not for the thousands who saw her in person or the millions who watched her on television, but for herself. Not only could she play when everybody was looking, she could play when she was looking at them. The Oakleys didn’t come out on that opening tee shot. The cameras looked her right in the eye. And she looked back.

With Sergio GarcÍa during a practice round at Colonial

“Colonial made her find her place,” Nilsson said. “She could be herself there. She could be herself after that.”

“I thought if there was anybody who deserved to play against the men, it was Annika,” Inkster said. “She was beating us like redheaded stepchildren. As a competitor, you want to see where you stack up against the best. She got a lot of well-deserved publicity, not just for herself but for the (LPGA) tour.”

“If you look at the stats for the first two days at Colonial, she was in the top five in greens in regulation,” McNamara said. “The first day she missed two greens, one by 3 feet and one by 3 inches. And that’s in a situation where your whole body is freaking out because of the largeness of what’s going on around you.

“But beyond that, the turning point was Colonial. She loves to play golf and she wanted to be the best. With that comes a responsibility. She accepted that. She embraced that. She made the decision to get better at everything.”

One of the millions of fans watching was an agent and former tournament operator who had known Annika enough to say hello a few times over the years. “I was in our offices at International Golf Partners,” McGee said. “I remember running into Ken Kennerly’s office because I didn’t have a TV in mine. I can’t remember ever stopping to watch the first shot on a Thursday. But everything stopped for Annika.

“Here she was, the best in the world by a landslide and if she’d gone out and shot 100 or embarrassed herself, it would have been a real black eye for the (LPGA) tour. But she really put the tour on her shoulders and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this, ladies.’

“Colonial was the transition for her, for sure. That’s when she became Annika, the one-word brand.”

Annika shot 74 Friday and missed the cut at Colonial. But from that point forward, she was more than a great player. She was the ambassador, the point person, the go-to veteran for everyone from the new commissioner to the new players who needed a little guidance.

“Right away when I turned pro I got to sit down with her and pick her brain,” Lindberg said. “She helped me find a caddie and she opened up her academy in Orlando when I needed a place to practice. She was a huge help all around.”

‘Go Annika’

Colonial was the moment when Annika became what she talks about with almost every breath now: an inspiration.

You see it in the things named after her, like the Rolex Annika Major Award, which recognizes the player with the season’s best major championship record. “When we were creating the award, the group came to me with the criteria and I said, ‘Yeah, but you have to win a major?” Mike Whan said. “What if you finish second in all five majors? Shouldn’t that count?’ Heather (Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s chief communications and tour operations officer and a former player) said, ‘I don’t think you’re right but would you feel better talking to Annika about it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’d feel much better.’ So, I got with Annika and she said, ‘Mike, there’s a big difference between winning a major and finishing second. You might not be able to understand that but every player on tour does. To win this award, you need to have crossed the final bridge.’ She was right and I was wrong.”

Colonial was the moment when Annika became what she talks about with almost every breath now: an inspiration.

And you see it in the people named after her. At a high school tournament in Georgia seen by no one except parents and coaches and remembered by even fewer, a 16-year-old left-handed girl stepped to the tee as the starter checked his sheet. “Now on the tee, from Mill Creek High School, please welcome Annika Blanton.”

A smattering of applause broke out for a girl with a name no American family had ever considered 30 years ago but one that has become more common than old standards like Doris or Peggy. “Our bookkeeper’s daughter is named Annika,” Nilsson said, alluding to her coaching business with Lynn Marriott. “We were like, ‘Oh, you’re named Annika. How wonderful.’ ”

Inspirational could be another word for it. How moved must you be by an event, by a person you do not know and might never meet, to name your child after her? It’s a question hundreds if not thousands of parents will eventually have to answer if they haven’t already. No matter what conversations those parents and children have, that day, on a lone tee box in the town of Braselton, Ga., a town just slightly bigger than Bro, Sweden, a voice behind the ball washer, in the tone only a father could use, yelled, “Go Annika.”

Go, indeed.

‘Gives More Than She Gets’

In late September 2007, Mike McGee got an invitation he couldn’t turn down. Se Ri Pak was turning 30 and McGee, who managed about 25 PGA Tour and Web.com Tour players at the time, was on the guest list for her party. He was traveling between events and flying out of Orlando, where Pak lived, was just as easy as his home base of West Palm Beach. So, he accepted and was enjoying an hors d’oeuvre at the shindig when Annika showed up. They’d met. Before moving to International Golf Partners, McGee had worked at Executive Sports, running about 15 professional events a year, seven of which were on the LPGA. Of those, Annika typically played in four or five. Given the small universe of people in golf, McGee knew her the way you know the person from a distant office that you run into once a quarter.

“In the time since I’d last seen her she’d won 11 times (in 2005), won 13 times (in 2002), been inducted into the Hall of Fame, played Colonial. She’d done everything. People were greeting her like the queen had arrived. I was hoping to shake her hand in the food line and say, ‘Hey, I’m Mike, I used to know you,’ but she gave me a big hug and asked me how I was and what I was doing.”

They chatted briefly and McGee gave her his business card but thought nothing more of it. Two years later, as he was stuck in the Atlanta airport waiting on a connection, McGee scrolled through his spam folder and saw an email he didn’t recognize with a subject line, “touching base.” He opened it and read: “Hi Mike, I was cleaning out my desk and found your business card. Wanted to touch base. Hope you’re well. Annika Sörenstam.”

“I thought it was a buddy busting my chops,” McGee said. “So, the next day, about 4:00, I run into Barry Lyda, the Callaway rep, and I said, ‘Hey, Barry, is this Annika’s email address?’ He looked at it and said, ‘Yeah,’ and at that same moment, Barry’s phone rang. Annika was driving it badly, which never happens, and she’d slammed her driver in the ground, which, again, never happens, and the little chevron on her driver broke off. So, she’d called Barry to ask if that would affect the swingweight. He smiled and just handed me the phone. I asked her to dinner because I was on my way back to Florida. She said sure.

With Mike McGee on their wedding day in January 2009

They were married in January 2009. A month later, she was pregnant with their daughter, Ava. By then, Annika had done that rarest of things in sports, joining a club that included such lofty names at Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown: She had walked away from the game while still near the top.

“She could have won three tournaments a year for three or four more years working half as hard,” McNamara said. “But that’s not who she is. Walking away is hard. For athletes, nothing compares to being in the moment.

“But I could tell. The entire time I’d known her, if she told me to be at the range at 9:00, I’d show up at 8:50 and she’d already be there. But in those last months, I started beating here out there. So, on the range at Mission Hills (in Rancho Mirage, Calif.) I just asked her, ‘Do you still have it? Do you still want to be the best?’ She looked at me with a tear in her eye and said, ‘I don’t think I can.’ That’s when I knew. She gave everything to be, to me, the best golfer ever. When she couldn’t give it anymore, that was it. She was done.”

“In 2007 she hurt her neck and was out for several months,” McGee said. “Lorena (Ochoa) took over the No. 1 spot (in the world). Annika came back at the end of the year and won in Dubai, the last tournament on any tour that she could play. That was enough. She knew she could still do it and that satisfied her. So, she called Steinberg and her team and told them that 2008 was going to be it.

“She won three of her first seven tournaments in 2008, which was incredible. I think one of the most impressive rounds I’ve ever seen was the final one at Kingsmill where she won, just slamming the door on the field, knowing that three days later she would tell the world that she was hanging it up. Had she shot 78 and lost, it would have been a very different press conference the next week.

“Not many people walk out on top,” McGee said. “She knew what she wanted. She had a plan. We got married a month after she last played. Then we found out she was pregnant. Everything worked out perfectly.”

Not exactly perfectly. In March 2011, 27 weeks into her second pregnancy, Annika came into her bedroom and woke Mike up. She had a towel around her waist and said the words no husband ever wants to hear, “We have to go to the hospital. I’m bleeding all over the place.”

Under normal circumstances the drive to the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies is about 25 minutes from the McGees’ home. Mike made it in 10. Tests found a fetal heartbeat, which surprised everyone. Within hours, Annika was diagnosed with placental abruption. Doctors tried to stabilize the baby so that his lungs could develop but within hours, a team of specialists delivered him by C-section.

Will McGee 2011

“We were originally going to name him Nicholas Alexander,” McGee said. “But Annika said, ‘We have to name him Will, because he’s going to need the will to live.’”

For 57 days, Will McGee lived in an incubator under the watchful eyes of specialists. As she had done throughout her life, Annika composed herself and worked the problem, advocating for her child, making lists and doing the work. Then, three weeks into Will’s hospitalization, Mike began shaking so much that he thought he might have been bitten by a poisonous spider. He became dizzy and his heart rate elevated. So, he went to the hospital where he received batteries of tests for everything from cardiomyopathy to multiple sclerosis. “They all came back negative,” he said. “I guess I just had a nervous breakdown.”

Through it all, Annika pulled her family together with devotion, discipline, love and loyalty: traits that she brought to every aspect of her life.

“She cares about me. Even now,” McNamara said. “She cares about my family. If she’s in your life, she’s behind you. She gives more than she gets. I hope people realize that.”

In her career, Annika had one coach, two caddies, and one equipment company, an almost unheard-of level of loyalty in the modern world of professional golf. She also had friendships that will last a lifetime.

“We’re on the sponsor-dinner-tour circuit together now,” Commissioner Whan said. “When I run into her at events I always say, ‘I’ll see you at dinner Wednesday night,’ because we’re always seated together – my wife, Meg, me, Mike and Annika. It’s perfect because we’re complete opposites. I can’t stop talking and she says more in four words than I say in four hours. … They’re great people. Great people.”

Loyal, disciplined, devoted, loving, talented, competitive, giving, caring … inspirational. No one knows what those teenaged girls named Annika will grow up to be a decade or more from now. But they could do far worse than modeling their lives after their eponym.

We can only hope that in the future, when their grandchildren ask, “Grandma, how’d you get your name?” they’ll say, “Come sit here, child. Let me tell you a story.”