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Annika to walk away on her terms

It doesn't seem like it's been 12 years since we saw Annika Sorenstam standing on the 18th green at Pine Needles hoisting the U.S. Women's Open trophy for the second straight year, her sandy blond bangs spilling over the front of her visor, framing a smile made for Sunday afternoons.

Sorenstam was just catching her wave in 1996, not knowing it would take her beyond the boundaries of women's professional golf and into everyday lives.

She became more than the best women's golfer of all time.

She became Annika.

The way she smiled and waved after all those birdies. The way she violated the golf swing's most basic rule by lifting her head before making contact with the ball. The way she accepted the attention but never wallowed in its glow.

And, of course, the way she handled herself when she played in the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial, taking all the heat, pressure and prejudice, and gracefully embracing it. She was a woman playing with the men, and she won over all but the hardest heads, who probably still don't know what they missed.

When Annika announced Tuesday that she would "step away" from competitive golf at the end of this season, it came as a mild surprise.

It shouldn't have, because she has always talked about going away on her terms, but she'd just won her 72nd LPGA tournament on Sunday by seven strokes, in the process thumping Lorena Ochoa, who has supplanted Sorenstam atop the women's game.

Selfishly, it came with a twinge of disappointment. For more than a decade, Sorenstam has always been there, knocking down flagsticks and records. It would be nice to see her continue, especially now that she's healthy again and proving she can battle Ochoa.

Instead, she has given herself seven more months of competitive golf -- 17 more events -- and then it's off to other things, such as teaching, cooking and, perhaps, mothering.

"If it's forever I'm not really sure," Sorenstam said on a conference call Tuesday. "But it definitely is for now."

Challenges exist that might keep someone else around -- she is 16 wins shy of tying Kathy Whitworth's all-time record (88), and Ochoa has challenged and, ultimately, unseated her, something no one else has done.

For Sorenstam, they are not enough.

Breaking Whitworth's record "does not motivate me," she said.

Regaining No. 1 from Ochoa "doesn't motivate me to keep on going," she said.

Without motivation, Sorenstam becomes just another golfer, and that's something she has never aspired to be. That's why she believes she can walk away at the end of this season and look forward, not back.

"I enjoy the competition, but I care too much about playing well that if I can't give 100 percent I don't want to give any," she said. "I know what it's like to play at the top. I don't want to do anything else."

Somewhere Tiger Woods is sitting on an exercise bike, rehabbing his knee and nodding his head in understanding.

Sorenstam has taken the women's game where it hadn't been. She shot a 59. She played prime-time golf with Woods. She helped the women's game go global.

She has come back from a neck injury that could have hastened her retirement. Instead, she worked through it, proving to herself she could get back to being Annika on tournament weekends.

This decision wasn't made overnight. Sorenstam talked Tuesday about the peace she has made with announcing the end of her competitive days.

She sounded happy.

"I'm not going away," she said. "I might not be inside the ropes, but I'm looking forward to another part of my life where I can help in different ways."

By being Annika.