Keeping Score: Annika Sorenstam retires with a little respect

When Annika Sorenstam was on the junior golf tour, she would deliberately three-putt the 18th to avoid having to give a victory speech. On Sunday in Dubai, she birdied the last hole of her professional golf career, and was applauded off the green by every player at the tournament.

“It means a lot,” she told reporters. “When you get that kind of respect from players it breaks your heart.”

Between the young girl who was terrified of public speaking and the 38-year-old woman who ended her career with a standing ovation lie 90 international tournament wins, 78 LPGA victories, 10 majors titles, eight player-of-the-year awards, six Vare trophies and more than $20 million in winnings.

Equally impressive was her 2003 participation in the Bank of America Colonial Tournament — a PGA event. Sorenstam became the first woman to play in a men’s tournament since 1945, when Babe Didrikson Zaharias entered three PGA tournaments.

“I felt at peace. I really felt very content,” Sorenstam said after her final birdie. “I walked up to hit my third shot on the 18th, and I felt the breeze coming in, and it was just a really comfortable feeling. I saw some players standing behind the 18th green, that gave me a tear. I saw my parents and my family and that give me a tear.”

It would be impossible to overstate what Annika Sorenstam has meant to the game of golf specifically, and to women’s sports in general. When she joined the LPGA tour 15 years ago, there was no WNBA or WPS. If a woman wanted to earn money playing professional sports, she was limited to either golf or tennis.

Sorenstam amped up the visibility of women athletes, and women’s sports everywhere benefited. In 2001, she gave herself the moniker “Ms. 59″ after she shot the lowest score in LPGA history. Many male golfers and reporters went after her, calling her score “barely credible.”

To silence the critics, the next year she won 11 titles and set an all-time LPGA low-scoring record.

After her round in Dubai on Sunday, Sorenstam said, “I’m both happy and sad. The motivation is no longer there but I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved in the last 15 years. I feel very good about women’s golf in general. It’s on the rise and it will continue to grow.”

And so it will, but never so large that it will forget the legacy of Annika Sorenstam.

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