Annika Sorenstam hears the footsteps, spry ones from golfers nearly half her age, inching closer.
She hears the whispers too: Annika’s the greatest, but those younger golfers are getting so good, it’s only a matter of time before they take over.
Sorenstam knows the spotlight is increasingly turning toward the younger generation. Paula Creamer, 19, is the LPGA Tour’s 2005 rookie of the year, second to Sorenstam on the money list and part of a U.S. team that recently defeated a European team led by Sorenstam in the Solheim Cup.
Michelle Wie, soon to turn pro, and Morgan Pressel are among other teenage prodigies presumably destined for stardom.
“They have good attitudes, good games and are great people,” Sorenstam says. But to those doing the whispering, she counters, I’m not that old.
Sorenstam, the world’s dominant female golfer, will turn 35 Oct. 9. She’s in superb condition and is much longer off the tee than when she started playing the tour full time, in 1994.
More daunting for the rest of the tour, she keeps discovering ways to stay motivated. She enjoys defending titles and, what’s really fun, she says, is three-peating.
That’s what she will try to do beginning today as she opens her second consecutive defense of the Office Depot Championship, which runs through Sunday at Trump National Golf Club on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“It’s always great to come back and defend a tournament,” she says. “In this case it’s funny because it’s a different venue, but again the same sponsor and same people organizing the event. So I guess, in a way, I am defending.”
Last year, when the tournament was held at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, she set a 54-hole winning-score record, with rounds of 68, 70 and 69.
This year it has been moved to the coast and will feature views of Santa Catalina Island, as well as 29 of the tour’s top 30 money winners, all trying to prevent Sorenstam from kicking more sand in their faces. “You’d figure that after you win so many events, it’d be hard to find the motivation to keep going,” says tour veteran Liselotte Neumann. “A lot of people sort of realize there may be other things in life than golf. But for Annika, she’s so focused on her game and she still loves it.”
Sorenstam has won 18 tournaments more than once, eight tournaments three times and two tournaments four times. She has successfully defended a title 17 times and has three-peated three times. She has seven victories this year. Of those, she successfully defended a title in three of four opportunities, the other time finishing tied for second.
As for the rivalry with the younger players, it’s already established as far as Creamer is concerned.
“The rivalry in my mind is obviously Annika,” Creamer says. “She’s the No. 1 player in the world and I respect what she’s done and how she’s raised the bar. So if I feel I have any rivalry with anybody, it’s definitely Annika.”
Sorenstam dismisses such talk.
“I’m a self-motivator,” she says.
She begins this tournament ranking first in rounds under par, 36; rounds in the 60s, 31; top-10 finishes, 11; greens hit in regulation, 76%; scoring average, 69.33; and greens-in-regulation putting average, 1.74. Her length off the tee has improved -- she is third with a 266-yard average -- and is 16th in accuracy, having hit 79% of the fairways.
On the tight and hilly 6,017-yard layout at Trump National, she may often use her seven-wood off the tee. Sorenstam says she’s relieved that a long tour schedule is finally winding down. Creamer says the grueling schedule isn’t an issue, adding, “It’s good to be young, I guess.”
The comment wasn’t intended as a shot at Sorenstam, but it was spoken in the spirit of a true rivalry.