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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
One of the great athletes of our time announced her retirement this week. Swedish born, now Florida resident Annika Sorenstam, will play out the rest of this season and then step away from the game she has dominated for more than a decade. Well, she'll actually still be in the thick of the game with her businesses of designing courses, branding clothing, and running academies, but she's hanging up her competitive cleats.
Annika is 37 and wants to start a family with the man she will marry next January, but the modern woman athlete has children and still competes on the world stage. Annika's news flashed me back to Bjorn Borg and Barry Sanders and Rocky Marciano. None of them were injured. No family crises. They were all young and for their own reasons, various degrees of burn-out, left their respective sports when so much more was out there for them. Borg was a mere puppy dog of 25 and many tennis experts feel he may just have won five more Wimbledons, to add to the five he had already swept in consecutive years. And just yesterday, another 25-year old tennis champion, Belgian Justine Henin, suddenly and surprisingly called it quits, the first reigning World Number One to do so….all the more surprising as the tournament she owns and has won four straight years, the French Open, is only two weeks away.
Annika is no longer Number One. She's by all means one of the elite and won her third tournament of the year just last week-end. But even as the grande dame of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, she's now the clear Number Two behind Mexico's Lorena Ochoa. Yet as much as we'd all love to see her sweet swing get in full gear and make a week-by-week rivalry with Ochoa come to life for the next few years, maybe Annika knows her own reality better than the rest of us. Maybe she knows her Number One days are behind her. And her championship spirit is just not built for Number Two. She says she relates to Brett Favre who just retired at 38, saying he knows he still has the skills to play but the day-to-day grind has lost its allure.
Annika's retirement makes me angry in a way. To golf insiders, she's a huge superstar. Reminiscent of Tiger, her first name will suffice. Annika. Queen of the 5-iron. Her bank account is brimming. She's won more than $22 million since her debut in 1994, more than any other woman who's ever played the game. The honor of Hall of Fame induction came to her when she was only 32, rare for an active player, but her stats were too superlative to put off induction until her retirement. To date, she has won 72 titles, ten of them Majors, along with eight LPGA Player of the Year Awards. Surely those numbers are enough for any one uberathlete to achieve, even at the still-vital age of 37. Maybe there's simply nothing more to prove. Maybe, as some golf reporters have expressed it this week, Annika has actually grown bigger than the LPGA tour itself and she stands to gain more as an athlete, both in fame and fortune, outside the tour parameters. There is no arguing that the LPGA does not command the gravitas as does their male counterpart, the PGA. And I can't help but believe that if the women's golf tour were as respected, as high-profile as the men's, Annika would play another decade or so. Thirty-seven to the male champions of the sport is a mere babe in the rough. Jack Nicklaus won his eighteenth Major at the age of 46. If Annika the golf insider were as big a brand, as known a personality, as huge a crossover star to the non-sports public as Arnold or The Golden Bear or Tiger, I do believe she wouldn't be hanging up her tournament clubs at this early juncture in her career. Along with anticipating each year's four Majors and counting Tiger's every swing to the day he surpasses Nicklaus, we'd also be counting Annika's.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images