- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
Aaron Barber had been a father for exactly four days when he left home for a golf tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, thinking that if nothing else, it would be a chance to get a decent week of sleep.
A 30-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour a decade ago, Barber was still sleeping at 7 the following morning when his clothing sponsor called to share the good news of his tee time and, specifically, one of his playing partners.
"I wasn't even awake and he's congratulating me on playing with Annika Sorenstam," Barber recalled by phone last week. "As a rookie, I had missed a few cuts, I just had a kid and my head was spinning already. And then I'm told to be at a press conference at 1. I'm thinking, 'Press conference? Who's going to show up to that? That's crazy.' That's when it dawned on me what we were in for."
As the 10-year anniversary of Sorenstam at the Colonial is observed and celebrated, Barber and others in Sorenstam's inner circle that week seem just as surprised by the commotion it stirred then as the impact it still has today. But what they remember most fondly about Sorenstam becoming the first woman to play a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias 58 years earlier, is a week of as many laughs as nerves, and as much competition as camaraderie.
"It seemed like it touched so many people on so many different levels," Sorenstam said by phone last week. "I see it more now after stepping away. Ten years later, people are still coming to me with stories. It was so much bigger than me."
So big, recalled her trainer, Kai Fusser, that they had to make adjustments to their initial travel plans as soon as their plane touched down in Texas.
"Getting from the airport to the house after we arrived, we were just trying to keep people away from her," he said. "When we went out to practice that first afternoon, we had to hide her. We had Annika laying down in the backseat of the van so no one could see her.
"When we got there, we went to the back side of the range because there must have been 250 reporters on the front side. But it didn't take two minutes and they all flocked to our side. But it was all good. It just added to the excitement."
Requests for press credentials soared to nearly 600 while USA Network prepared for continuous coverage of Sorenstam -- forever after known simply as Annika -- promising only that viewers would see the rest of the field as time allowed.
Meanwhile, the 32-year-old, nine-year tour veteran who already had been named LPGA Player of the Year five times and counted four majors among her 43 career victories, said she only was looking for a new challenge.
"I really had no clue how I would do," Sorenstam said. "You hope [to play well], but I wasn't necessarily there just to make the cut. It was about the experience, the learning, just the whole thing. Can I perform under those conditions? Can I learn something? I was trying to find a way to take my game to another level, looking for a little extra spark, something to get me fired up, and it was perfect."
David Walker, Colonial's media center director, was prepared for the throng of reporters descending upon the event but not necessarily the breadth of coverage, which he said came from "every country I can think of," including Sorenstam's native Sweden, France, Germany, Denmark, Japan and Canada.
"We have a fairly big media contingent that comes normally, but we tripled, at least, the size of everything," Walker said. "We re-designed the entire media center. Normally we used one court of an indoor tennis facility and we expanded to two. The first pre-tournament interview was wild. I took pictures of the media taking pictures."
Laura Hill, a 26-year-old P.R. assistant for the LPGA at the time, accompanied Sorenstam that week and wrote a daily blog on her experience.
"Annika was the perfect person to go through that because she was very reserved and quiet and never flustered, and any other type of personality would be freaked out," Hill said. "I remember when we arrived to register, there was media waiting for her at the clubhouse and it was like Jennifer Lopez at the Grammys with everyone yelling, 'Annika, here. Annika, over here.' And she just smiled and waved."
By then Sorenstam had been sent two dozen yellow roses from the LPGA Corning Classic, the tournament she was missing to be in Fort Worth; good luck wishes via fellow golfer Maggie Will from President George H.W. Bush; a congratulatory letter from Bill Cosby; and she surely had driven past the local restaurant whose sign read "All Colonial Female Pros Eat Free."
For Jesper Parnevik, who was partnered with Sorenstam and Sergio Garcia that Tuesday for a practice round, the distraction was welcome.
"I remember all the chaos and hoopla, it was a big thing and it was good for everybody," Parnevik said. "Any time you create that kind of worldwide attention, it's good for the game. That put golf on a worldwide map that week. Even people who did not watch golf watched that week."
The two playing partners randomly selected to tee it up with Sorenstam on Thursday and Friday would be sharing the spotlight.
"I was thinking, 'I better find a golf game here.' A lot of people are going to be watching me and I was not playing particularly well," said Barber, who met Sorenstam for the first time as he was leaving his news conference Tuesday with fellow tour rookie and third in the threesome Dean Wilson, and she was walking in.
Critics and cheerleaders
Like Barber and Sorenstam, Wilson had a sponsorship exemption into the tournament. But the 33-year-old journeyman was not your typical rookie, having played seven years on the Asian tour with six tournament victories.
Coming off his second top-10 PGA Tour finish in a tournament two weeks prior, Wilson remembered stopping in the pro shop on the way into the news conference to buy a $3 "Go Annika" button.
"Sure, I remember that, because the big question was 'Are you opposed to her playing?' and I never was," he said. "I thought if I had on the button, everybody would get the drift right off the bat, and I wouldn't have to answer 20 questions about it."
The question had gained momentum after the previous week, when tour star Vijay Singh told The Associated Press he hoped Sorenstam did not make the cut.
"What is she going to prove by playing?" the former Masters champion said, opting out of the tournament. "It's ridiculous. She doesn't belong out there."
Nick Price, the defending Colonial champion, also chipped in, calling Sorenstam's appearance "a publicity stunt," while adding that she should have been forced to qualify for the tournament rather than being offered one of the sponsor exemptions.
Later, Singh backed off his comments a bit, saying they were not intended as a personal attack on Sorenstam, and clarifying that he hoped she missed the cut "because I don't want to have a woman beat me."
On the flip side, Tiger Woods, who shared agents with Sorenstam (IMG's Mark Steinberg) and frequently played with her near their Orlando-area homes, did not play at Colonial but called her three times that week.
"She was playing so well at the time," Woods recalled at The Players Championship. "She was winning everything. Her confidence was high. And I thought what she was doing for the sport of golf and for women was absolutely incredible. It took a lot of courage to do that and to put herself out there on the limb like that … and out there in front of the world to critique, criticize and anything in between. …"
Among the other conversations Sorenstam had before playing Colonial was one with tennis legend Billie Jean King, whose 1973 victory over 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" was played in front of a global television audience estimated at 50 million and who was generally credited with gaining respect and exposure for the women's game.
"I talked to Annika before she played and I watched both days of the tournament coverage," King said in an email to espnW. "She was in almost every frame and it was all Annika, all the time. The amount of attention was amazing for Annika, for the LPGA and for women's sports."
Just another shot
The ultimate judgment would begin at 8:58 a.m. Thursday on the 10th tee, her first of the day. Though Sorenstam had been preparing to play the course for months, the pressure to perform well was still felt acutely by those around her.
"I thought we had done everything we could; she had been swinging well the last couple years but a lot of negative stuff was coming in which we couldn't filter out," said Terry McNamara, Sorenstam's caddie of three and a half years to that point. "Players on the ladies tour were worried that here's our best player and if she falls on her face, it's going to make us all look bad. And there were people on the PGA Tour that didn't feel she belonged there."
McNamara wasn't sure what Sorenstam was taking in, but he was hearing seemingly everything, particularly Tuesday as they walked off the course following her brief practice.
"Annika was never a great practice-round player, even on tour, but she played incredibly bad this day," he said. "Then I'm coming off the course to where the bag storage is and Annika is behind me with security, and I hear this guy, the calligrapher for the tour, this big, heavy bloke, say, 'This broad won't break 80,' and in my head I'm saying, 'I'll bet on that.'"
Sorenstam said she tried not to waste energy worrying about any resistance.
"I was pretty sure once the week was over, as threatening as some thought it would be, that people would understand why I came," she said. "I wasn't trying to prove anything about men against women. I would never take on something like that … I was just another golfer trying to perform my best and trying to learn from the very best."
But that still wasn't going to help her on her first tee shot.
"One of my very first thoughts was that the hardest thing was going to be that first shot because everybody would be watching," McNamara said. "I said, 'Look, we can top the first shot because it's going to be so emotional, and it'll be fine. But once we top it, we go do our job like every other day. Once that's over, we're done with that and it's back to our routine.'"
His fears were somewhat allayed during the week by observing Sorenstam. McNamara said he wrote little notes to himself, repeating more than once, "She's as cool as a cucumber. I can't believe it."
"Then, 20 minutes before the first tee," he said, "I was cleaning a club and I looked up and saw a look on her face that I had never seen before. … I walked over to her and she was as pale as a ghost. She didn't let others see but she said, 'Oh Terry, I hope I can do this. I don't know what I got myself into.' I just said, 'Look, we're prepared, we can do it, we're going to put it out there.' And she just looked at me and said, 'OK.'"
On the putting green, Barber leaned over to Sorenstam and whispered, "Remember, we're doing this together."
But on the first tee, Sorenstam was still obviously unsteady after Wilson and Barber hit irons safely onto the fairway.
"She went to say something to me and her lips moved and no words came out," McNamara said. "She had a shocked look in her eyes. Then she laughed and I laughed and she ripped it 254 yards right down the middle with her 4-wood, which she usually hits 225 to 230 yards. So now we're off."
Sorenstam staggered off the tee in a mock swoon, a fan in the gallery yelling, "You da man."
"I was extremely nervous," Sorenstam recalled. "There was such a build-up for so long, four months of preparation. I wasn't thinking about the tee shot. I was more nervous than that. I was thinking, 'Can I keep the ball on the tee?' I kept telling myself, 'It's just another golf shot, stay focused on your routine.' Once it was in the fairway, I was delighted about it.
"I still had a long way to go, but now I was off and running and there was nothing else I could do but go out and have fun."
In Corning, N.Y., as in Fort Worth, Texas, players crowded around locker room televisions, watching and cheering Sorenstam, while others came off the putting green asking, "How's she doing?" the "she" eminently understood.
Meanwhile, in a hotel room, then-LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw also was watching intently.
"I wanted to watch her make her opening tee shot from the privacy of my hotel room before I got to the course," he said. "So I watched from my little room, on a little TV, on the edge of my bed, scared to death. Then I saw her reaction and thought she got off to great start. When she did her semi-faint, I did a similar one."
Back on the course, the nerves took a while to fade, Sorenstam telling McNamara on their third hole, "I can't feel my hands."
But the golfers and caddies instantly bonded and rooted each other on even after Sorenstam drove the ball farther than the men -- which she did on that first tee shot -- and particularly when she rolled in a 15-footer from the fringe for birdie on 13 (her fourth hole).
"She made that long putt and it was just electric," Barber said. "I remember running onto the green and giving her a big high-five and I was like, 'Whoa, did I just do that? I'm playing against her.'
"It was the most memorable birdie of my life and it wasn't even mine."
As they walked the course, they allowed themselves to glance around, spotting people actually hanging from trees, holding up signs and rooting for "this little girl who just took over the place," McNamara said.
"There are some things I remember very clearly and some I don't remember whatsoever," Sorenstam said. "I saw the man with the chicken hat [a fan who fashioned a cap with a felt rooster on top and 'Vijay' written on each side as a slap at Singh]. And I remember the twin girls from Oklahoma [8-year-olds Kimmy and Morgan Carris, who wore T-shirts reading 'Singh a Different Tune Vijay' and 'Thank You Annika for Opening Doors for the Future'].
"I was very focused," Sorenstam added, "because I knew this was something I was going to experience one time and one time only."
She would shoot a 1-over 71 in the first round, hitting 13 of 14 fairways while averaging 248 yards per drive, out-scoring Garcia and Tom Lehman among others and calling it "one of my best rounds ever … more than I could have ever expected."
Wilson, who made the cut the following day, finished with a 71 while Barber came in at 72. Tying Sorenstam at 71 was Nick Price.
Enjoying her just rewards
Immediately after the final hole, which Sorenstam three-putted for bogey, Hill handed her the phone to accept the congratulations of PGA commissioner Tim Finchem. On another phone, Votaw waited his turn.
"She didn't know what the reaction was at Corning," Votaw said, "and all I said was, 'Annika, you made your organization very proud today, and you should be very proud of what you've done for women's golf.'"
Like Barber, Sorenstam would miss the cut, shooting a 4-over 74 on Friday, 5-over par 145 over the first two days. But for McNamara, the highlight of the week already had occurred the day before, when he once again ran into the "big bloke" who predicted "the broad won't break 80" after her practice round.
"When she came in after the first round, he was the first guy we saw off the course," McNamara said. "And the guy patted her on the back and said, 'That was incredible.'
"It was so funny. But she did change people's minds. I told her on the 18th green [Friday] after she didn't make the cut, 'If my two girls grow up to have half the courage you have, I'll be very proud.' She showed people it's OK to take a chance, that you don't have to listen to critics, to go ahead and get it."
McNamara, who has not caddied regularly since 2010 but has maintained friendships with Barber and Wilson and is embarking on a career in motivational speaking, will not be short of material after 10 years with Sorenstam.
"She's just a very special person, better at focusing on the task at hand than anybody I've seen in my whole life," he said. "And just the courage she had to go so far outside the box, the class she displayed and the way she stood up to it all. She wasn't afraid to fail, and that's how she succeeded."
Ten years later, the magnificence of Annika Sorenstam's efforts at Colonial hasn't dimmed, and those who were there still marvel at her courage.