Annika's No Quitter
True champions never give up. They don't concede, they don't walk off the course, they don't quit no matter what. Annika is a true champion
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Thirty-five years and five days ago, on a spring night in March of 1973, Muhammad Ali climbed into the ring in San Diego to engage in fisticuffs with Ken Norton, a bull of a boxer not likely to win on finesse and strategy. In the second round, the thick-shouldered Norton caught Ali squarely with a right hand to the jaw, fracturing the bone. Somehow, Ali fought 10 more rounds before losing a close decision. That's what champions do. They don't quit.
Somehow, on Saturday at Mission Hills Country Club, Annika Sorenstam, dehydrated and running on nutritional and emotional empty after being unable to hold down food for more than a day, shot a 33 on the back nine to rescue a front-nine 40 and finish 54 holes of the Kraft Nabisco Championship at two-under-par 214, just four strokes behind leader Lorena Ochoa. Somehow, Sorenstam was still in a tournament she had almost quit because of illness. It was golf's equivalent of fighting 10 rounds with a broken jaw.
Saturday's round was the first in 2008 of the 17 she has played that Sorenstam did not break par. Still, it was easily the most impressive round she has played this year and, especially on the back nine, is on the short list of impressive rounds ever played in a major championship. Logic, and whatever ails the woman's stomach, simply says she should be nowhere near the top of the leader board instead of T-9 with Suzann Pettersen and within an early birdie barrage of putting heat on Ochoa.
That Sorenstam salvaged a 73 after bogeying four of the last six holes on a birdie-free front nine was rather remarkable. At least four times over the final nine holes it seems as if she would call for a cart to take her off the course.
It was as if the round was being played in slow motion. She and her caddie Terry McNamara would leave the tee box together but quickly she would be lagging 30 yards behind, stopping occasionally to bend over at the waist and rest her hands on her knees.
On the 11th hole, she lay flat out on the ground in the shade of a tree waiting to hit her second shot to the par-5 hole. When it was her time to hit, she had to be helped to her feet by McNamara. And, after playing to the fringe from 225 yards, she walked to the ropes on the left side of the fairway and told her finance Mike McGee, "I don't want to quit." McGee said: "You don't have anything to prove to anyone."
Sorenstam said: "Let's take a look at the birdie putt," to which McGee replied: "It's for eagle," eliciting a laugh from the weary Sorenstam. Having birdied No. 10 from 15 feet, Sorenstam made the two-putt birdied on No. 11 for two in a row. As she walked to the 12th green and yet another birdie putt, McGee bent over and grabbed his knees, then straightened to reveal a face streaked with tears, his chest heaving with sobs. "I have never been so proud of anyone," McGee said.
After pars on Nos. 12 and 13, Sorenstam rolled in an 8-footer on No. 14 for birdie and when she holed out from the bunker for birdie on No. 15 to get to three under par for the tournament and four under in six holes on the back nine the meager gallery following her -- most were with Ochoa two groups back -- sensed something magical was happening. "Three more, Annika," a lone voice yelled, triggering more applause.
But the tank, already running well below empty, didn't even have fumes left. She bogeyed No. 16 from the right rough and, while waiting for the green to clear on the par-3 17th holes, lay flat out on a bench, her forearm across her eyes, drawing deep breaths. McNamara gave her information on the pin position and the wind as she lay there. Sorenstam made par on No. 17 and on No. 18, missing a 5-foot birdie try on the last hole.