Me And Annika
The happiest sports story this weekend, easily, was the return to the LPGA Tour by Annika Sorenstam. While she ultimately finished last, that wasn't the story. The fact that she made the cut, after not playing competitive golf for over 12 years, cemented her as the GOAT in woman's golf.
I have been a huge fan of hers for her entire career. In fact, she and I have some history together. Like many that have met me, or know me, she doesn't like to admit we have met, but we have. A few times.
In the summer of 1992 I volunteered to be a marshal at the U.S. Women's Amateur being held at Kemper Lakes in Long Grove, IL. It was a ton of fun to watch the best female amateur golfers in the world compete, and frankly almost no work since there were only 50 -100 fans on any given day.
I was lucky enough to work several rounds following her group early in the week, and then was assigned to marshal her matches all but once in the elimination rounds. By the finals, when she was playing Vicki Goetze, I was pretty familiar with her game and she was familiar with seeing me around her all week.
On the first tee for the finals I was assigned to carry the score sign for the first nine holes. The finals is a grueling 36 hole match play. They played 18 holes in the morning, broke for lunch, and finished in the afternoon. The golfers were introduced to the assembled mob of 40 people. Annika made a point of shaking my hand, and the hands of the other three marshals there with me. Goetze ignored all of us just like she had all week.
Goetze had already won the title two years earlier, so she was a grizzled vet, while Annika was nervous to start, as you would imagine. Annika was also painfully shy still at this point in her career, so she was clearly not comfortable. Annika jumped out to an early two hole lead, but Goetze caught her, and they finished the first eighteen all tied.
After warming up, they started the second eighteen holes, and the match went back and forth until Goetze took advantage of some sloppy play by Annika. As they stood on the 13th tee, Annika was three down with six to play. She managed to win a hole but on the 16th tee she was still two down with three to play. It looked like another easy win for Goetze. All she needed to do was win a hole, or even halve one, and she would be the champion again.
Sorenstam birdied 16 and now she was only one down. Goetze was still in control but the grip was slipping. On 17, Goetze missed a birdie putt and Annika slammed hers home and just like that the match was all even with the tough 18th to play.
Both ladies hit nice drives and had approach shots over the lake in front of the 18th green. Goetze hit first and cleared it, barely, but was safely on. Annika thinned her shot and it plunked in the lake. She chipped short onto the fringe, and made her putt for a bogey 5. Goetze missed her birdie putt but tapped in for par and the match was hers.
A very exciting match ended with a thud. Goetze had her family, friends, agent, management team, sponsors, and assorted other hangers on, surround her and congratulate her on her win. Annika was nowhere to be seen. Goetze would go on to have zero LPGA wins in her career. Annika did a bit better.
She would finish, so far, with 72 wins on the LPGA Tour, 17 on the LET Tour, for a whopping total of 89 worldwide wins, including 10 majors, induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and would be the only woman to shoot 59 in a tournament. I would say things turned out OK for her.
I eventually spotted Sorenstam standing, alone, on a hill, behind the 18th green, waiting for the ceremony to start, watching Goetze celebrate her win. She was upset and disappointed, obviously, and I felt bad that she was alone. I approached her, and she recognized me, and once again thanked me for volunteering that week. I told her that I didn't know what her plans were after college, regarding turning pro, but I said that once she did turn pro, that she was going to have an amazing career.
It's not like I was Karnack or anything. If you've seen enough sports, like I had, you can see when someone has something special. They just look different than the others. She clearly had it, and I knew it watching her that week. I had no idea she would go on to do what she did, but I was pretty sure she was going to be successful.
In January of 1993 I was, once again, in Las Vegas for another in a long line of CES shows, when I was sitting alone at a roulette table waiting to go to dinner with friends and I saw out of the corner of my eye a couple approaching. They sat next to me and I looked over to say hi and realized it was Annika and her father.
She looked at me like she kind of recognized me but was unsure why she would. I said hello and reminded her I was a marshal at the amateur earlier the previous year. Her eyes opened and she then remembered where she had seen me and started telling her dad, in Swedish, something. He smiled, shook my hand, and after brief pleasantries, my group showed up and off I went.
She was in town to play in a charity golf outing, sponsored by the company I was working for at the time Casio. Small world I thought, and moved on. Her career started to take off that summer and in the Spring of 1994 I was in Minneapolis for the initial Best Buy charity golf outing. I decided to make one last trip, to get rid of some coffee, and was coming up to the corner of the clubhouse, when from the other direction someone turned the same corner and we nearly ran each other down.
I grabbed her arms to keep her from falling, and apologized, when I recognized that it was Annika. She saw that it was me and smiled, shook my hand, and asked if I was playing in her foursome that day. I told her that I was way too far down the totem pole to be in her group and she offered to ask for me to play with them. I politely thanked her but said that would not happen and that maybe we could catch up afterwards.
Needless to say there was no way I was going to get within 20 feet of her afterwards as sponsors, captains of the industry, and Best Buy management, had her surrounded all afternoon and evening. That was the last time we ran into each other as she quickly moved on to a whole different world than I was in, as she deserved.
Today she is a full time mom, active in golf worldwide, and occasionally doing TV. For the shy, reserved young lady I first met, it is wonderful to see her become what she has. I have been lucky in life to have had the chance to do some pretty interesting things, and meet some pretty interesting people. I would not change one thing about what I've been able to do, and meeting Annika, before her career started, and seeing her become the greatest of all time, has been way up near the top for me.
It was great to see her back on the course this weekend, and when she plays in the Senior Women Open later this summer, I will be watching and cheering her on. Don't count her out. She will be better prepared for that, than she was for this weekend, you can be sure.