Billie Jean King. Wilma Rudolph. “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Chris Evert. Althea Gibson. Kathy Whitworth. Martina Navratilova. Mickey Wright.
I’m not worried about whether the 37-year-old Swede is the best female golfer ever. With 72 LPGA victories and ten majors (and with the meter still running), she certainly gets invited to the party, along with Wright (82 wins, 13 majors) and Whitworth (88 wins, more than any golfer of any gender; 6 majors).
No one else need worry. This is a very small party.
But as she plays today in the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, the year’s second major, and in the wake of her announced retirement a few weeks ago, it’s worth noting that Sorenstam just may be the best female athlete ever.
Okay, those of you who don’t believe golfers are athletes can leave the room now. Everyone else, cozy up and let’s figure this thing out.
Since most of us were not around when “Babe,” (the golfer who dominated women and hung in there with the men, making the cut in three of four mens events) Wright, Whitworth and the great runner Rudolph did their thing, they’ll almost always lose in any best-ever straw poll, caucus or Florida election.
Althea Gibson broke barriers, no doubt, but doesn’t have the numbers to mount a winning case.
Billie Jean? She did both. She shattered barriers (isn’t she still doing it?) and amassed the numbers, particularly 39 combined singles, doubles and mixed Grand Slam wins.
Alas, that’s fewer than Navratilova’s astonishing 59 slam victories, and she, too, was a multi-faceted pioneer, bringing a new level of fitness to women’s sports and, later, championing gay rights.
(Of course they both fall short of Margaret Court’s 62 slams, which might eliminate them from the top perch, as well.)
Joyner-Kersee? Now we’re talking. The famed heptahlete (a fancy term for all-around jack) won three gold, one silver and two bronze medals over an astounding four Olympics. She holds the world record in heptathlon along with six all-time best results.
And she did all this while battling asthma, which she continues to battle as a visible spokeswoman for treatments.
My former colleagues at Sports Illustrated once named Joyner-Kersee the best female athlete of the 20th century.
Sorenstam’s run makes her the leader in the clubhouse for the 21st century title, but she doesn’t quite knock JJK from atop the all-time list.
It will be easy for all except those who follow and appreciate golf to forget just how good Sorenstam has been, and my fear is that her feats – like those of Wright and Whitworth – will fade from the sports consciousness as someone comes along who runs, jumps or thwacks a tennis ball while looking hot in a short skirt.
Sorenstam was never any of those things. She’s just a winner, one who dominated her era. She won the player of the year award eight times, the Vare Trophy (low scoring average in a season) six times, and played on seven Solheim Cup teams for Europe.
She also went against the men when she teed it up at the Colonial in 2003 and, despite a wave of negativity, missed the cut by only four strokes. Recently she described that week as a turning point for her.
“It just felt like the pressure that I felt through the Colonial, nothing will ever compare to that,” Sorenstam said. “I remember stepping up to a tournament after the Colonial and feeling like it was a piece of cake.”
Sorenstam also laid the groundwork for the game’s next great player, Lorena Ochoa, who attended the same college as Sorenstam (Arizona) and sought the icon out for counsel when she joined the tour.
Interestingly, at 26, Ochoa has already racked up 23 LPGA wins. At that same age, Sorenstam had just six.
Sorenstam may not be the best female athlete ever, but she’s holding her own for the 21th century nod – at least for now.