Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Annika is Stepping Away

With the news that Annika Soresnstam was leaving professional golf (not retiring, per se), I devoted an entire segment of this week's 19th Hole Golf Show to it. Check it out on the sidebar if you don't want to read what my thoughts are because you can hear the same thing, more or less.

Let us be clear: Annika Sorenstam said nothing about retirement in her press conference and statement yesterday. Read what she said, courtesy of LPGA.com:

“After much consideration, I have made the decision to step away from competitive golf at the end of this season,” said Annika, who has added three more victories to her career total so far in 2008. “Because I love the game so much, this is obviously a hard decision to make, but it feels like the right one. I made this decision because I have a number of other priorities in my life, including starting a family, that I want to be as dedicated to as I have been to playing golf and it was always important to me to go out on my own terms.”
Two things stick out to me here. Of course, the "step away" phrase is very vague. It does not indicate finality in any sense. I should know as a fan of the Green Bay Packers, what with all of the talk about Brett Favre's daily statements that indicate that he could return if new QB Aaron Rodgers turns out to perform poorly. When people are vague, they usually are on purpose. Step away can leave room for an eventual comeback effort. It could also actually mean that she is done for good. Honestly, though, I don't think she knows whether or not she is truly done. She does know that she is done for now.

She is done for now for all of the reasons that you and I know. Annika will be married in early 2009, wants to start a family, and has about a dozen side businesses that will keep her challenged, busy, and rich. Basically, she is at the next stage of her life - committing to being a wife, mother, and a businesswoman - and needs to lay the groundwork for that. After she does that and she decides that the fire still burns to play golf competitively, then she'll come back and do that.

If she doesn't, though, the LPGA is not in bad hands. That is probably why Annika had no problem announcing the beginning of her farewell tour yesterday. Between Lorena, Paula, and a host of up and coming players, the LPGA Tour has a very bright future. Annika can walk away knowing that the house is in order and that she has nothing left to teach the kids. The Tour is hosting events all around the world (even if several are struggling here). A real television contract may be in the cards for the first time in the Tour's history. Purses have never been higher. The ladies played St. Andrew's at the Open for God's sake. Between 1994 and 2008, a lot has changed - much thanks due to Annika.

Despite all that she has achieved, Annika has not done all that she wants. While many women on the LPGA Tour play while pregnant, take a break to have a child, and return, it appears Annika does not want to do that. She said that she wants to be as committed to the next phase of her life as she has been to golf. That is her option. Annika has more than earned the right to do what she pleases.

Sorenstam has never been one to carry much about records. Kathy Whitworth's 88 victories are within reach with 4 or 5 more normal seasons for Annika of 4-5 wins. If this season is the end, though, will anyone really doubt that she is the best LPGA Tour player ever? Jack Nicklaus does not own that record on the PGA Tour and Woods is shy of the mark by almost 20 wins yet they are still 1 and 1a in the conversation for best male golfer ever.

Fortunately, though, the announcement in May gives us an opportunity to see her final season through a different lens. It gives us an opportunity to remember what she did so well, how she has remained humble throughout all of her success, and see how far she has come. But it also gives the apparent battle for domination between Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa some extra meaning. This is Annika's last stand, so to speak, and Ochoa will be the survivor no matter what. Still, Annika can prove to those who doubted her after her 2006 neck injury and 2007 season that she is still the best in the world. She can deliver a message to Ochoa that she is letting her off easy and that she could come back and do the same thing anytime that she wants. For me, that makes the rest of this season even more exciting.

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