Sorenstam’s historic appearance at Colonial changed lives and attitudes

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The history books show Annika Sorenstam made headlines and drew record crowds to the 2003 Colonial tournament because she became the first female golfer in 58 years to compete against male peers in a PGA Tour event. All of that is true.

But her legacy from that event, in Sorenstam’s estimation, never will be measured by the primary numbers on her Colonial scorecards (71-74). Those added up to a missed cut despite Sorenstam, an LPGA Hall of Famer, posting a lower 36-hole total (145) than 14 male touring pros in her history-making visit to Hogan’s Alley.

Instead, Sorenstam places a greater value on lives impacted, attitudes changed and a personal challenge met when she reflects on the 10th anniversary of her week in the global golf spotlight in Fort Worth.

Given a decade’s worth of hindsight, combined with today’s perspective as a wife and mother of two preschool children, Sorenstam said the primary message of that week was driven home during her April return to Fort Worth to film a Golf Channel documentary about her experiences. The special airs Wednesday (8 p.m., Golf Channel).

During that session, Sorenstam met Kimmy and Morgan Carris, a set of twins who followed her as 8-year-olds in 2003 before becoming successful high school golfers in Enid, Okla. Each twin wore a homemade T-shirt while marching in Sorenstam’s gallery at Colonial and, a decade later, returned to the course to let her know they continue to view her as an inspiring figure in their lives.

“That, to me, is the bigger picture,” Sorenstam said. “That’s bigger than me just hitting a few golf shots. When you can inspire others, when you can show them you can achieve your dreams, that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Sorenstam, 42, said she’s heard lots of similar stories about how she inspired young girls during her week in Fort Worth. Fellow Colonial competitors and club officials praised Sorenstam, then and now, for how well she handled the pressure of competition while dealing with the underlying tension of knowing that several male peers did not approve of her participation in a PGA Tour event.

That is why the Swede, who won 72 LPGA events and 10 major championships, called her Colonial appearance “one of the highlights of my career” despite the early exit after two rounds.

Sorenstam began laying the groundwork for that type of impact against a backdrop of resistance from male players who would join her in the field in Fort Worth. The pros were upset by the decision to offer a sponsor’s exemption in one of the tour’s elite invitational events to a golfer who did not own a PGA Tour card.

Vijay Singh and Nick Price, the defending Colonial champ, were among the most vocal objectors. Price called it “a publicity stunt” arranged by the tournament’s title sponsor at the time (Bank of America) to increase ticket sales and TV ratings. Singh withdrew less than a week before the opening round, announcing his decision to skip Colonial moments after he won the 2003 Byron Nelson tournament in Irving.

“I didn’t really anticipate, or appreciate, that it was going to be controversial in the simple fact that a non-tour player was going to take up a spot where these guys make their living,” said 2013 Colonial tournament chairman Bobby Patton, who also was part of the tournament committee in 2003. “I thought that was a very real point for the PGA Tour players. It created some hard feelings with some people, and they didn’t agree with it. But the reality is a sponsor’s exemption is just that. And quite frankly, if a sponsor wants to use an exemption on the CEO’s son-in-law, they sure can.”

Instead, this sponsor opted to create a space for the top player in women’s golf — the only player in LPGA history to fire a 59 in tournament play (2001 Standard Register Ping). Sorenstam, 32 at the time, arrived in Fort Worth at the peak of her career and amid a record-setting buzz of ticket sales and media exposure.

Colonial officials capped ticket sales at 50,000 per day — 200,000 for the four tournament rounds — and sold out well in advance of the opening round. In addition, tournament officials issued 652 media credentials — more than double the 250 total from 2002 — and reconfigured their media room to create space for foreign journalists representing outlets that included Sydsvenskan and Fotografiska Aktiebolaget.

“I’d never been through anything like that. Neither had anyone else at Colonial,” said Dee Finley, Colonial’s 2003 tournament chairman who first broached the idea of inviting Sorenstam to fellow club members. “It was about as electric as I’d ever seen it when she teed off [in the first round].”

Finley, a longtime tournament committee member, also was involved with Colonial’s only other announced sellout in 1997 for Tiger Woods’ appearance in his rookie season. Officials capped ticket sales at 45,000 per day (180,000 for the tournament) that year, so Finley had an idea of the buzz that could unfold if Sorenstam played in Fort Worth. He also recognized the potential for negative feedback, which led him to consult with past tournament chairmen and other club officials after Sorenstam’s agent, Mark Steinberg, requested a sponsor’s exemption for his client.

At the time of Sorenstam’s request, female club pro Suzy Whaley had qualified for a spot in the 2003 Greater Hartford Open, scheduled to be played in July. Whaley was on track to become the first female since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 to compete in a PGA Tour event before Sorenstam’s entry into Colonial redirected the history-making storyline to the best player on the LPGA Tour — and, in turn, to Fort Worth.

Asked if she ever would have pondered a PGA Tour opportunity if not for Whaley’s situation, Sorenstam said, “I don’t know. That certainly started the whole thing. ... If that had not taken place, I’m not sure I would have gotten the opportunity. But timing is everything, and I’m glad I took advantage of it.”

So were Colonial officials when all was said and done. But after fielding Steinberg’s request for a sponsor’s exemption, Finley raised a key question during deliberations with fellow Colonial officials: What would Ben Hogan think?

“We thought he would approve,” Finley said, referring to the late golf legend from Fort Worth who won a record five Colonial titles. “He appreciated performance, diligence and dedication. She brought all of that to the table.”

During tournament week, she also brought out an unprecedented number of female fans, especially girls, to Colonial galleries. Many wore “Go Annika” buttons sold in the pro shop, a practice that became popular with several of the male participants who supported Sorenstam’s participation. In terms of weekly profit margin, Finley did not share Colonial’s bottom-line take in 2003 but said tournament officials “did exceed by a comfortable margin our previous tournament-best performance.”

“It was an exceptional week,” he said.

The Carris twins, who drove down from Enid with their father and purchased tickets from a street vendor, followed Sorenstam while wearing homemade T-shirts with the slogans “Singh a Different Tune Vijay” and “Thank You Annika for Opening Doors for the Future.”

A popular, non-Colonial-sanctioned souvenir also emerged during tournament week: a hat shaped like a chicken with the word “Vijay” on the side. Sorenstam said she was aware of the hats during tournament week as well as Singh’s adamant stance that a woman should not compete in a PGA Tour event but that she does not own one.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion. He was very vocal and decided not to play,” Sorenstam said, reflecting on Singh’s disdain for intergender golf. “I’m not sure what I expected. I knew it would be a learning opportunity. I never felt it was women vs. men. It was me against myself in trying to get better at golf. ... I was nervous. But I was comfortable with the decision. I wanted to test myself. At the end of it, I made some great friends and turned some people around.”

Eventually, Sorenstam received public kudos from a long list of fellow Colonial competitors, starting with playing partners Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber. Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik, Jeff Sluman, Tom Pernice Jr. and Kenny Perry, the eventual 2003 champ, also were among those who offered praise and support. Perry even acknowledged that he “always will be known as the guy who won Annika’s event … and that’s OK with me.”

But one of the biggest kudos, from Sorenstam’s perspective, happened in a quiet moment on the practice range when she received positive feedback from Price, who initially balked at the move.

“Nick Price, in the beginning, was not so excited,” Sorenstam said. “But by the end of the week, he was so supportive. He gave me a wave on the practice range and came over and gave me a hug.”

It is worth noting that, after leaving Colonial, Sorenstam won two of the final three majors of the 2003 season on the LPGA Tour (LPGA Championship, Women’s British Open). She also finished one stroke out of a playoff at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open, the only major she failed to win that season after competing in Fort Worth.

A decade later, Sorenstam runs The Annika Academy, a golf school in Reunion, Fla. She has established a charitable organization, Annika Foundation, that supports junior golf and encourages children to live a healthy, active lifestyle. The wife of Mike McGee, a former sports agent, Sorenstam also works as a broadcaster for the Golf Channel while raising two children: Ava, 3, and Will, 2.

Sorenstam said “life is good” these days and still includes roughly 100 days of golf-related travel despite her status as a retired golfer. She said she will be thinking about Colonial this week, particularly on Wednesday, which will mark the 10th anniversary of her opening round in Fort Worth.

“I tell people all the time we all come to crossroads in our life,” Sorenstam said. “They may be scary but they’re exciting opportunities. It’s so easy to say ‘no’ because you could embarrass yourself. But I think that message is very special, especially now, being a mom. My foundation is about helping junior girls to fulfill their dreams. I want to touch those kids’ lives and inspire them.”

History will record that Sorenstam began doing that in a big way 10 years ago at Colonial.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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