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Just Imagine

Birdie and tears as Sorenstam bows out

  • Story Highlights
  • Swede Annika Sorenstam sinks final putt of her 15-year professional career
  • 38-year-old dominated women's golf for a decade, raised profile of the sport
  • New stars are expected to come from Asia, where women's golf is popular
  • Sorenstam is retiring from golf to focus on her family and business interests
  • Next Article in World Sport »
By Pete Sorel-Cameron
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Emotional Annika Sorenstam sank the final putt of her magnificent 15-year professional career in memorable style for an eight-foot birdie at December's Dubai Ladies Masters.

Sorenstam waves to the crowd after sinking a final birdie to end her 15 year career.

Sorenstam, who is retiring to focus on her family and business interests, led the tournament after the second round and left her sport to a standing ovation.

"I have had many farewells since I announced my decision some five months back, but this one was special," Sorenstam said.

"I felt at peace. I really felt very content. I walked up to hit my third shot on the 18th, and I felt the breeze coming in, and it was just a really comfortable feeling.

"I saw some players standing behind the 18th green, that gave me a tear. I saw my parents and my family and that give me a tear."

It was the final step in a prolific career that saw the Swedish player dominate the LPGA for a decade, and become the first woman to play in the PGA for more than 50 years.

Sorenstam has been credited with elevating women's golf from a "fringe sport to the mainstream."

"Her golf, her practice, her commitment, her mental strength just elevated the game to a new level," said Alexandra Armas, Executive Director of the LET. "I think that was a key factor in how competitive the game is now." Photo See a picture gallery of Sorenstam's career »

When Sorenstam entered the professional game 15 years ago, the U.S. Tour was dominated by home players. The Swede sparked new interest in the sport, attracting sponsorship dollars and inspiring players worldwide to pick up a club.

Jane Carter, the former editor of Women and Golf magazine, told CNN the Swede's dominance of the game from the late 1990s laid the groundwork for today's field of talented female golfers.

"I would think week in, week out, (tournaments) could be won by one of 15 to 20 women, really, which I don't think was the case when she was having her best times on the tour," she said

Annika Sorenstam's career has run almost entirely parallel with that of U.S. golfing legend Tiger Woods, and comparisons between the two aren't without basis.

Carter, who also edited Golf Monthly, told CNN about the pair's dominance: "I remember writing a column a few years back saying 'Is the game getting boring?' because we had Woods and Annika winning virtually every week, or that's how it seemed. I think that was easy to write at the time, but looking back on it, it was a terrific period in the game's history."

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And, like Woods, Sorenstam is not only one of the most successful players of the modern game, she is arguably the most famous.

Her name is a global brand and a huge draw to sponsors and media alike, and there are questions as to whether the new breed of players can match her appeal.

The field that is hoping to fill Annika's shoes is made up of a series of rising stars, including the dominant Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican who has held the world's number one spot for more than 80 uninterrupted weeks, and American youngster Paula Creamer.

But it is from Asia that the new generation of women's golfers is expected to come.

Interest for the sport in Korea and Japan, particularly, is staggering and, according to Alexandra Armas, "the level of participation in those countries is a lot higher percentage-wise, in relation to the population, compared to the majority of countries (the LET) have tournaments in."

Yani Tseng is a prime example of the instant impact young Asian players are making on the sport.

2008 was her debut year on the LPGA, and, with a tour win and 10 finishes in the top 10, she took the Rookie of the Year title, was the third highest earner on the tour for the year and, as of the beginning of December, was second in the Rolex world rankings.

But, as Armas put it: "To become something like Annika, it's not just about golf really, it's about a lot of things: a player would have to grow and mature as a person to be able to make that impact."

In terms of personalities in the women's game, the other name that has made headlines is American Michelle Wie, who earned her place on the LPGA tour at the weekend by finishing tied for seventh place at the final Qualifying School event.

Wie first hit headlines in 2003 when she became the youngest ever winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at the age of just 13, and continued to hold media attention turning pro in 2005 and playing in both LPGA and PGA events.

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Though she has never won a women's event, nor made the cut in a men's, Wie is back on form after an injury in 2007 and is hoping to get her card LPGA tour card so she can focus on the women's game.

Many pundits believe she is capable of success at the highest level, including former women's world number one Laura Davies, who sees Wie as the most promising newcomer at the moment, saying of her "she can get there."

However, the top women's stars are still playing in the shadow of the men.

Even when Sorenstam was at her peak, she struggled to get her name in the headlines ahead of Woods'; Jane Carter told CNN that when the Association of Golf Writers had considered Sorenstam for the Golfer of the Year Award "under normal circumstances nobody would have touched her, but (Woods) had had one of his great years again."

Without a player like Woods of their own, the women's game may always feature significantly lower down the pecking order than the PGA. Armas told CNN that the sport "will need another personality that transcends golf media and becomes a general icon in sports that young people aspire to be."

One advantage the women's game has over the men's is its international appeal. The dominance of Sorenstam, a European golfer who played on the LET and LPGA, boosted the profile of the sport in new countries.

"She is one of the first I think who has transcended both sides of the Atlantic, even more so than Tiger Woods," Carter told CNN. "She has got an enormous worldwide following."

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The result has been that there is huge support for the women's game around the world.

"It travels very well," Carter said."They get good crowds in Europe, they get good crowds in the Far East, they get good crowds in the States I think, and in Australia, and that's a healthy position to be in."

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