GLADSTONE, N.J. - The most dominant golfer in the world sends another controlled drive right down the middle, splitting the fairway almost perfectly. A surgeon could not be more precise with a scalpel.
Annika Sorenstam looks up. Twelve people clap, including one guy who wandered up to the tee box, stared earnestly at her and asked, "Who's that?"
Such is life for Annika Sorenstam since women's golf seemingly went teen overnight. One day, Sorenstam's stalking the Grand Slam, with golf experts predicting that no one can stop her. The next, she's waking up after a bad weekend in Denver and it's like the whole circus has moved on without her.
The scene with a dozen people watching Sorenstam happened at the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championships earlier this summer. It took place in the middle of New Jersey, in one of the most densely populated areas in the U.S., on a pro-am day when anyone could walk right up and watch the world's best women golfers. Sorenstam drew a dozen spectators. At least one of whom might have experienced angst trying to identify her with the program.
The scene could just as easily have occurred at a half-dozen tournaments in the wake of the U.S. Women's Open, however. This is the new reality of women's golf, one that even those who leaned on Sorenstam to carry the LPGA for years are willing to acknowledge.
"With all the young players who are emerging, the LPGA is further pushed away from having to depend on any one single player or storyline to generate interest," former LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw told TravelGolf.com
This is the nice way of saying: It's no longer Annika's world.
The atmosphere around the Samsung World Championship is the latest, dramatic dose of this reality. Set for Oct. 13-16, this is the most anticipated Samsung World Championship ever and it has nothing to do with Sorenstam, the defending champion. The No. 1 player in the world is merely another sideshow to Michelle Wie's first tournament as a pro.
It's all Wie, all the time. Annika who?
Wie holds the $10 million in endorsement contracts and all the buzz. Sorenstam is at best the third story at Samsung, behind Wie and even telegenic, 19-year-old winning rookie Paula Creamer.
Flash back just a few months ago to late June and that statement would be unthinkable. Sorenstam had won the first two majors of the year with such dominant, taking-out-the-trash routine ease that all the buzz heading into the U.S. Women's Open centered on whether anyone could even make her sweat in her Grand Slam quest. Then, Sorenstam's driver went balky, a few short putts came up shorter, 15-year-old Michelle Wie seized the tournament until a Sunday meltdown and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel came a Birdie Kim miracle pitch away from a great chance to win it.
Just like that, Sorenstam's stranglehold over women's golf was gone. It wasn't apparent at first of course. She finished seven shots behind the unremarkable Jeong Jang at the Women's British Open, the last major of the year, however. She's won once since taking the second leg of that long gone Grand Slam vision in early June and that was a one-shot win with little sign of the old Sorenstam dominance.
The recently completed Solheim Cup may have delivered the most jarring dose of this new reality though. For in the Solheim, Sorenstam played well, won and still became lost in the fuss over a teenager. With Sorenstam's European team blowing a huge lead, 19-year-old LPGA rookie Paula Creamer drew all the attention.
Sorenstam was once again a footnote.
It's an unusual position for the stoic, shot-making Swede. One that has her peers wondering how she's going to react.
"I think all of us have been affected by how well the teens are playing," said 22-year tour veteran Juli Inkster. "Even Annika. Which is probably the biggest surprise. She's finding that there are a number of young players who are not nervous about going after her. They're definitely not intimidated."
Inkster smiled. She knows better than most the advantages being young, fearless and a little naïve can hold over being a veteran who's very aware of all that can go wrong on a golf course. Inkster was a phenom in the days before the modern media age. She won two majors in her first year on tour, 1983. Which gives her the perspective to know that the teens care little about that history or any other.
"At least they know who Annika is," Inkster laughed. "I'm not even sure they know my name."
Sorenstam is still the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, of course. She still did win six LPGA tournaments this season alone before that U.S. Open stumble. She still has nine career major titles, putting her more than halfway to the women's golf's much-less-publicized Jack Nicklaus record (Patty Berg holds the record for career major wins at 15).
There is plenty of thought that Sorenstam is simply suffering from a Grand Slam gone malaise after tying for 23rd place at the U.S. Women's Open. The usually guarded Sorenstam even gave the media a glimpse into these feelings in the weeks after the quest ended in Denver.
"Well, I have analyzed (the U.S. Open) quite a bit," she said. "Trying to figure out what happened and pretty much what didn't really happen."
For Sorenstam, this amounts to barring her feelings Oprah style. She used the word "disappointment" a dozen times to describe coming to grips with the Grand Slam being gone in one interview session.
"It's a goal I set for myself, went after and couldn't quite reach," Sorenstam said. "Sure, it's something you analyze. That's how you learn. I still think (the Grand Slam) can be done."
Could a re-energized Sorenstam, pushed by Creamer's breakthrough and Wie's likely first season on tour and record-setting endorsement contract (the one that will make Sorenstam's riches look like what's left in the small change jar), came back even more dominant in 2006?
"I don't think Annika would be human if not having a chance at the Grand Slam after openly talking about it hadn't bothered her," veteran Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said.
Of course, it was only a few months ago that people were talking about Sorenstam as a non-human robot who could win on command. Reality is that Sorenstam turns 35 in early October. Wie, Creamer, Pressel and the rest of the kids are charging hard.
And Sorenstam's sometimes hitting driver to a mere dozen strangers.
"How far did that one go?" an old guy asked.
"About 400," Sorenstam deadpanned. The guy broke into a big grin, delighted by the joke.
Sorenstam simply stared straight ahead.
October 7, 2005