News & Opinion

Once on parallel tracks, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam veer

Tiger Woods-Annika Sorenstam
Tiger Woods (left) and Annika Sorenstam, the respective king and queen of golf in recent decades, were cast in stark contrast recently: Woods mending from another road incident and Sorenstam taking a victory lap of sorts.

In early 2000s, Woods and Sorenstam reigned in golf, but circumstances alter their trajectories in the game and life

Their universes used to run parallel. Annika Sorenstam was the Tiger Woods of her genre, in a sense. And Tiger Woods was the Annika Sorenstam of his, if you will. 

Granted, the bigger picture suggests that Tiger Woods has been the Tiger Woods of the entire golf galaxy for the past 25 years, period. But if you can buy the fact that the two golf stars were separate but equal, at least in a perceptual way, you could appreciate the remarkable contrast on display recently.

Both were in the news late last month, Woods in a much more immediate way. He crashed his car violently early Feb. 23 near Los Angeles. He was badly hurt in the incident, and it became a “special report” on seemingly every television, radio and Internet outlet in the world.

A couple of days later, Sorenstam walked out of a 13-year hiatus to tee it up in the Gainbridge LPGA at her home course, Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla. Her last official win was at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill in May 2008. 

But if you ask Sorenstam, she might say, unofficially, that she has been winning ever since. She is 50 years old now, five years older than Woods, old enough to play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open this summer, which she plans to do. She was 38 when she closed up the bag, packing away 72 LPGA titles, including 10 major championships, eight Player of the Year awards, and a “59” card with it. 

Lorena Ochoa had climbed to the top of the LPGA precipice by that time, but Sorenstam still was all that and a bag of chips on the women’s golf scene, winning three times in that final 2008 season. 

She had nothing left to prove, and no desire to prove it. She wanted other things – motherhood, family, normalcy – something other than hotels and headlines. She was motivated by life, not records, not fame. And she has been crushing it, with her husband and two children, with her grace and dignity intact.

So, it was a lovely story, having her back, 13 years later. Despite an incorrect ruling that penalized her one stroke, she made the cut, played the weekend and served healthy portions of chicken soup to all those paying attention. Sorenstam even wore red and black on Sunday, a nod to the hospitalized Woods, who spent the weekend in bed, pins and rods holding his right leg together. Their universes no longer run parallel; they are nearly diametrically opposed.

At the same time when Sorenstam was leaving professional golf in 2008, Woods was limping to a storybook U.S. Open victory, carrying stress fractures and a torn ACL with him. Looking back, it was a demarcation point, the beginning of a domesticated and delighted Sorenstam, and the damaged and determined Woods.

Woods had surgery after the “wounded knee” win at Torrey Pines. Moreover, his name has become synonymous with surgery, punctuated by controversy, underlined with drama. Just a year later, in 2009, he won six times on the PGA Tour and topped the tabloids by tagging a fire hydrant in the middle of the night. 

You know the rest: the improprieties and scandals, the books and broken relationships, the DUI incident, the back issues, the rehabilitation … always the rehabilitation. The loss of form, the return to form, round and round and round in the circle game. Sorenstam has been far removed from the public eye; Woods never seems to leave it. 

None of us has been elected judge or jury; that’s high above our pay grade, celestially high. None of us has the access to know any better. Sorenstam’s life might be much more complicated than it appears on a weekend in Lake Nona. Woods’ might be much less.

But on the surface, you can’t help but acknowledged the apples to oranges, and you can’t help but wonder. In the aftermath of Woods’ terrible crash, among the first things you heard from almost every commentator’s mouth was speculation about his future in golf – as if that were critically important, as if the 45-year-old is in the prime of his career, as if our public piece of Tiger Woods is what matters. 

Meanwhile, Sorenstam walked from tee to green with her kids, visited with friends and tearfully explained how much it all means.  

Anyone who has paid a minute of attention to the sport over the past many years would acknowledge that Woods is either the greatest player in the history of the game or part of the conversation. He also is ridiculously wealthy. These things are self-evident. Nothing will change them, and arguably, nothing will significantly embellish them. The label sticks whether Woods wins a 16th major, an 83rd PGA Tour event or ever beats Phil Mickelson again. 

So, what’s the point? What is there to prove? What is accomplished by another surgery to relieve another issue with the back, or the knee, or the neck? What is gained by continuing to come back, make more commercials, win more awards, make more headlines? Is the need that intense?

Of course, it’s not for anyone else to say, certainly not some ink-stained, high-handicap hack. But during an eventful week in late February, it was hard to miss the contrast between two iconic golf champions, and easy to recognize which image was soft focus.

For what it’s worth, here’s hoping Tiger Woods stops counting his surgeries and starts counting his blessings. Hasn’t he deserved that?

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