My first chat with Annika Sorenstam happened at the 1997 Longs Drugs Challenge, her ninth of 72 victories to date.
She already was a star, having won the last two U.S. Opens. But on that April afternoon at Twelve Bridges outside Sacramento, she holed a nerve-twitching 4-foot putt to set up a playoff and eventual win.
We learned a little that day about why she became arguably the best women's player in history.
"I love short putts," Sorenstam said later. "I can see the hole. I have no fear of them at all."
When you look at Sorenstam, the word "fear" doesn't come to mind. She's ordinary in stature and shy by nature. There is no Kathy Whitworth stare, Arnold Palmer stride or Nancy Lopez charisma in Annika Sorenstam.
What stands out about Sorenstam is fear -- as in none.
I love to watch Sorenstam golf her ball. She pulls greatness from a flawed peek-a-boo swing, her head spinning forward just before impact. She's grooved that action, however, much like a metronome waving the beat. Because she's so relentless from tee to green, she's won 10 major championships and more than $22.1 million despite being only a decent putter.
If she possessed the putting stroke of her good friend Tiger Woods, she would've been positively unfair. Regardless, Sorenstam stalked and eventually overtook rivals such as Laura Davies, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon and Dottie Pepper by just outplaying them shot for shot.
Another admirable quality about Sorenstam crystalized Tuesday as she announced her retirement effective at the end of this year. She's always been unusually grounded for a superstar and comfortable in her own skin. At 37, she's "leaving the game on my own terms" because she "wanted to show proper respect to the LPGA and to the fans. I feel at peace with myself and my career."
That serenity and sense of self carried her through a divorce and the injuries of 2007. She's talked about starting a family for years and, now that she'll marry Mike McGee (the son of former PGA Tour pro Jerry McGee) in January, she gladly starts a new phase.
Retirement for female athletes is far more complicated than for men. Jack Nicklaus and wife Barbara successfully raised five children while Nicklaus hardly interrupted his hall of fame career. For women, however, the biological clock always ticks.
Knowing when to walk away, regardless of gender, always is a difficult and provocative decision. Many athletes can't handle the process. Michael Jordan and Roger Clemens, among many others, retire and unretire and then repeat the cycle.
I doubt Sorenstam will false-start. She may not have been the most marketable athlete in the game, but no one carried herself with more dignity. She's chosen this time to go and, like her precision on the course, there will be no second-guessing.
Besides, what's left for her to do? Chasing Whitworth's 88 record wins holds no value to her. She came from Sweden with a game and a plan and she's succeeded.
To her, the only remaining obstacle of substance was bouncing back from last year's injury-induced disappointment. Her response: Three quick wins, the last one Sunday by seven strokes over a field that included Lorena Ochoa, the phenom who replaced her as No. 1. She will join Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Sandy Koufax and Rocky Marciano, champions who exit at or near the top of their power.
Sorenstam further proved her mettle when she matched up against the men at the 2003 Colonial. The project was vintage Annika. She defined the quest, teed up her ball and, though she missed the cut, smiled her way through and owed no one an apology. Compare Sorenstam's experience to the circus surrounding Michelle Wie at men's events.
Sorenstam is unusual for a 21st-century sports icon in that she lets her performance, rather than bombast, make her statement. Her priorities always have been on-point, as we saw 11 years ago at Twelve Bridges.
It was early evening and a few writers still hammered out their final stories. Then we heard a "Bye, guys," and it was Sorenstam going out the door, but not before she signed every autograph from every fan.
Sorenstam's farewells always have been graceful.
HOLES-IN-ONE -- Jerry Lemas, Modesto, 142-yard fifth at Dryden Park, 8-iron. ... Darla Buckley, Manteca, 98-yard 15th at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, 8-iron.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.