Early retirement for Annika

Times Staff Writer

Annika Sorenstam has always played golf with a controlled precision and singular focus that made her the best player in women's golf for the better part of a decade, perhaps the best ever.

Now, she says, its time to apply those attributes to other areas of her life.

Sorenstam, 37, announced Tuesday that 2008 would be her last as a competitor and that she would turn her attention to her pending marriage, starting a family and building the "Annika" brand, which includes a golf academy, foundation and course design business.

Carefully avoiding the word "retire" -- she called it "the r-word," -- Sorenstam said the time was right, even though she has three victories in eight tournaments this season and has shown signs that she could make another run at the top spot in the world rankings.

Her last event will be the Dubai Ladies Masters, a European Tour event in December, and she has a January 2009 wedding date.

"The reason for this decision is that I have other priorities in my life," Sorenstam said. "This is obviously a very difficult decision for me to make, because I love this game very much. But I know it's the right one. I'm leaving the game on my own terms."

She's also leaving while still within striking distance of several records, making the timing of her announcement surprising. Her 72 victories are third to Kathy Whitworth's 88 and Mickey Wright's 82, and her 10 major championships are fourth all time, five shy of Patty Berg's record 15.

After winning by seven strokes Sunday at the Michelob Ultra Open, Sorenstam showed she still has plenty of good golf in her, but she said Tuesday that chasing those records is not at the forefront of her mind.

"I feel like I achieved so much more than I ever thought I could, and to beat [Whitworth's] record does not motivate me," Sorenstam said. "I'm at peace with what I'm doing."

In 2001 Sorenstam began an all-out assault on the history books that many felt would end when she passed Whitworth's and Berg's records.

She shot the only 59 in LPGA Tour history early that year and followed that by overcoming a 10-stroke, final-round deficit to win the Office Depot Championship at Wilshire Country Club to tie the record for largest final-round comeback. That was her fourth consecutive victory, equaling an LPGA mark.

It was the first year of a five-year stretch during which Sorenstam won 43 times in 104 starts, including seven of 20 majors.

Yet for all of her LPGA accolades, she might be best remembered for her appearance at the Bank of America Colonial in 2003, when she became the first woman since 1945 to play in a PGA Tour event.

She missed the cut by four shots, but gained legions of fans and elevated the levels of admiration and awareness of the women's game by shooting respectable rounds of 71-74.

"It would be very difficult to find another golfer who has done as much for the LPGA Tour than Annika," LPGA Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens said. "History is still being written, but it's not going to be easy to erase Annika's name from the record books."

Her dominance helped forge a friendship with the dominant male golfer of this generation, and Tiger Woods said it was "sad to see the greatest female golfer of all time step away."

"But it's nice to see Annika did it on her terms," Woods said.

Amy Alcott, a Hall of Fame member whose career overlapped those of Wright, Whitworth and Sorenstam, said that even though Sorenstam didn't get the victory records, her accomplishments are equally impressive.

"She's done everything there is to do in golf and dominated women's golf for a long time and that is more difficult to do today than it was then," Alcott said. "Her level of consistency is unparalleled, and then you add in the 59 and the Colonial and those are the types of things that history remembers."

During her run of dominance, Sorenstam routinely hinted that she would retire early so she could raise a family, but it took an injury-riddled 2007 season to drag her away from the game.

Recovering from back and neck injuries last year, she played a limited schedule, went winless for the first time since 1994 and Lorena Ochoa passed her as the top-ranked player.

But the time off allowed her to spend more time with her fledgling off-course endeavors and showed her that life away from competition could indeed be fulfilling.

"You start thinking, what else is important in life, and what else do I want to achieve on the golf course?" Sorenstam said.

And she said she wants to attack her life away from competition just as she attacked golf courses, which is why she won't play even a limited schedule.

"If I can't have it 100%, then I don't want to give any," she said. "So it's either on or it's not."

She acknowledged that the desire to compete might someday return -- "If it's forever, I'm not really sure, but it's definitely for now," she said -- but said the only reason she came back this year was because she didn't want an injury to end her career.

"I think it's very important for someone as competitive as Annika to go out on top," Alcott said. "She came back and proved to her critics and, most importantly, to herself that she could still be at the top and now she can leave on her own terms."



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