Support for Annika genuine, unforgettable
What I remember most about the Colonial "carnival" a decade ago was almost everybody seemed to be rooting for Annika Sorenstam.
Sure, there were cranks such as Vijay Singh and Nick Price who appeared petty and ridiculous in their criticism of Sorenstam's invitation to compete in a PGA Tour event. And it's likely a few other players held their tongues but were hoping Sorenstam would fall apart on the Colonial Country Club course. But overwhelmingly, the gallery was with her.
I was covering the Colonial for my former newspaper, The Kansas City Star, and had been at many of Sorenstam's LPGA events over the years. I thought she would be embraced at the Colonial, but it still was so heartwarming to witness. It didn't feel as though it was Annika versus the PGA, or women versus men, or anything acrimonious.
Instead, it was as if Sorenstam were representing everybody versus their own ambition/insecurities. As she said that day in May 2003 after shooting a first-round 71 in front of her biggest-ever audience, "I know I can play. The question is, 'Can I play when everybody is looking?'"
That might sound odd for someone who, at that point, had been playing golf in front of paying spectators and television audiences for many years. But actually, it made sense; by "everybody," Sorenstam meant all the people who either never or rarely watched her play on the LPGA Tour. She knew they were skeptical.
That bright spotlight at the Colonial was the most challenging thing for Sorenstam, more so than the course or the other players. She wanted to see if she could handle that pressure, and if so, whether it would have a galvanizing effect on the rest of her career.
After Sorenstam's amazing 2002 season -- when she won 11 LPGA titles -- she was offered a sponsor's exemption by 10 PGA Tour events. She chose the Colonial because the Fort Worth, Texas, course put more of a premium on driving accuracy (her hallmark) than length. The Colonial setup was 7,080 yards, about 500 yards longer than any LPGA course at that time.
Sorenstam was -- still is -- at heart a bean counter, a stats cruncher, a math geek. She knew to the very centimeter how far she could hit each club. And she wasn't one who took swashbuckling chances. She was no Phil Mickelson-type: "I've never hit this shot before, but I'll try it now in the final round!" Sorenstam was a technician, risk-averse unless the potential reward was worth it.
So, she was reasonably confident that from a physical/technical standpoint, she could shoot a decent score on Colonial's course, even with a PGA setup.
As for going "against" men, Sorenstam never thought of tournament play in that kind of mano a mano way, even on the LPGA Tour.
She would say so many times over the years, "I compete against the golf course." That was the essence of golf to Sorenstam: It was more the mental battle of how she could get the best score against the difficulties each hole presented. Every round consisted of 18 quizzes she was trying to ace.
That isn't to say her key LPGA rivals, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak, didn't motivate her to raise her own bar. She always has acknowledged they did, but not in a way that disrupted her focus on simply trying to "beat" the course. She always felt if she did that, she'd probably win. And she was usually right.
Thus, the chief obstacle the Colonial presented was, indeed, "everybody" watching: More media -- some 600 of us were credentialed -- than she'd typically face at several LPGA Tour stops combined; thousands of fans, several of whom may never have seen an LPGA event; people watching on TV because of the human-interest spectacle, even if they couldn't care less about golf.
There were inevitable comparisons to tennis' "Battle of the Sexes" that had taken place 30 years before "Annika at the Colonial." But the events weren't all that comparable. In tennis, you are head-to-head against one opponent. Furthermore, Billie Jean King fully expected that she not only would, but absolutely should, beat Bobby Riggs because she was 29 and he was 55.
By 2003, Sorenstam had long entered each LPGA event knowing she was capable of winning. At the Colonial, though, her whole mindset was different. It wasn't about winning, but about testing herself against a lot of bigger, stronger players in an unusual environment where so much scrutiny would be on her every move.
Among those who followed the LPGA and Sorenstam, it seemed there were two different feelings going into Colonial. Some were worried for her; they feared she would wilt under the strain, play poorly and make the LPGA look bad.
Others didn't feel that way, though. I definitely empathized with Sorenstam's nerves but didn't feel very nervous for her. That's because I was pretty confident she was going to play just fine, probably not make the cut but certainly shoot in the 70s. She was too good not to, especially then, at the peak of her skills. I was giddy just to witness so many "new" people watching an athlete I'd watched for years.
I had first seen Sorenstam compete in person while covering the 1994 Solheim Cup. It was late October at the picturesque Greenbrier in West Virginia, and Sorenstam was not well known then. She had just turned 24 earlier that month -- there weren't all the teenagers as pros then, so 24 still seemed young -- and she had yet to win an LPGA event.
I'd asked a European team official to recommend the best of their young players to talk to, someone who wasn't famous yet, but perhaps someday would be. She directed me to Sorenstam, who seemed shy and rather relieved when the interview was over.
The next year, Sorenstam would break through with her first LPGA victory at the biggest tournament -- the U.S. Women's Open -- and her fame would grow from there.
By the time of the Colonial, she had transformed herself in the nearly nine years since her first Solheim Cup. She had become not just the top European, but the best female golfer in the world. She had brought a new level of fitness to the LPGA Tour that forced many of her peers to try to follow her lead, like what Martina Navratilova had done in women's tennis.
Sorenstam also had made peace with her degree of celebrity and blossomed rather than withered in terms of interaction with media and fans. I thought of her as an introvert who had found her inner extrovert.
In my career, there is no athlete I respect more than Sorenstam. She became what her sport needed her to be, not just a successful player, but a spokeswoman and ambassador.
And if you'd seen a glimpse of the younger Sorenstam, such as I had at Greenbrier, you knew how much work -- with a willingness to push far beyond her comfort zone -- she had done.
Hers was a story of a woman's personal growth, writ large via the stage that athletics can provide. The biggest stage of all came at the Colonial.
Do I wish Sorenstam could have gotten this much attention for what she did in an LPGA event instead? Sure, but at least she got it somewhere. Besides, without her LPGA success, the Colonial invitation never would have come.
To be present those two days at the Colonial felt like experiencing an unexpected holiday -- somewhat surreal, but wonderful, too. You could tell she was battling nerves but also that she was soaking in all the good vibes that came from so many people, including the admirable gentlemen, Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber, who were her playing partners.
When it was over that Friday, Sorenstam had shot 145 and missed the cut. LPGA Hall of Famer and veteran golf commentator Judy Rankin had nearly nailed it: She had predicted Sorenstam would shoot 144 and struggle only with putting, which she did at times on the LPGA Tour, too.
I recall being disappointed that Sorenstam wouldn't be playing on the weekend, simply because it had been so much fun to be out there on the course watching her and the reaction to her. I think if she had decided to play a few more PGA Tour events, she would have made some cuts. But the lone experience was enough for her.
Basketball legend Ann Meyers, who had signed as a free agent with the Indiana Pacers in 1978 and then was cut at camp, was one of the people with whom I had talked before the Colonial to get some perspective on what Sorenstam was doing.
Meyers had said of her Pacers' experience, "I was taught you have to believe in yourself. Half the battle is being positive. I never looked at it as a failure."
And when men she knew asked Meyers why Sorenstam wanted to play a PGA event when she had her "own" tour, Meyers always had a ready answer.
"I'd say, 'If someone gave you an exemption to play in a PGA tournament, and you had a chance to see how you'd do, would you turn it down?'" Meyers said. "And these guys would always say, 'Well, no.' And I'd say, 'So what's the difference with her?' She believes in herself, and she wants to try."
Ultimately, I think that's why the support for Sorenstam at the Colonial was so loud, so strong, so genuine and so unforgettable. It wasn't just people cheering for an "underdog." For those two rounds, Sorenstam was all of us doing something we'd always wanted to try.