When Annika Sorenstam, one of golf's most popular figures, announced last month that she was retiring after this season, her only visit to Maryland - at the McDonald's LPGA Championship - became a chance for fans to catch a final glimpse of the Hall of Famer.
Though most have not met her, her fans talked and behaved yesterday as if they had a personal connection with the Swedish golfer. More than 100 trailed her from hole to hole, and she obliged many of the Sharpie-waving spectators with autographs after she shot 2-under-par 70 in the first round at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace.
Peggy Murray, 70, of Berlin, said Sorenstam was presented with just the sort of choices about balancing career and family that millions of women must make. Though she is sorry to see Sorenstam go, Murray said she thought Sorenstam's decision to retire at 37 would be embraced by fans.
"It was a complete shock to me, but when I thought about it, I understood it," Murray said.
To many, Sorenstam is more than a golfer with 72 career victories, third all-time. They've read her book and her blog, bought her brand of clubs, embraced her victories and suffered through her struggles and injuries.
Peggy Bradford, 59, of Ocean City, was among those who followed Sorenstam yesterday.
"It's heartbreaking," Bradford said of Sorenstam's decision to retire.
But Bradford and others said her female fans' sense of familiarity might have been enhanced by the decision of Sorenstam, who plans to marry in January, to step down from the game as the No. 2-ranked player so she can devote more time to her family, businesses and charitable interests. It's the sort of decision women everywhere can relate to, Bradford said.
Bradford, a Sorenstam devotee - "I have Callaway clubs, hats and balls and I've read her book" - directs programs for the elderly on the lower Eastern Shore. She said Sorenstam was a classic example of methodically transitioning from one phase of life to another.
Sorenstam wrote in her blog May 13 that she wanted to "share some information that may come as a shock to some of you."
"I feel like I am doing this on my own terms," Sorenstam wrote. She said she was committed to her family and to devoting more time to her golf and fitness academy, her foundation devoted to young golfers and golf course design.
Before the tournament, Sorenstam told reporters she would miss the competition, but "I want to change my priorities to getting married and starting a family. This was not a decision that I just decided over a cup of coffee."
She has been trying to keep the focus on golf, saying repeatedly that her final months were about the sport, rejecting the notion of a "farewell tour."
"No, I'm just trying to focus on my game," she said when asked yesterday if she were "sentimental" about her final months on the tour. She began with a 34, followed by a 36 on the back nine. "Just didn't make some putts," she said.
Sorenstam, known for her focus on the course and her grace off it, has been a boon to the LPGA by attracting crossover fans who might not otherwise follow the sport. In 2003, she became the first woman in 58 years compete with men in a PGA Tour event. She's also known for shooting a 59, the lowest score in the history of the LPGA.
To her fans, the moments on the course with Sorenstam seemed as valuable as rare stamps, each made more valuable because there aren't many left.
"We've come the last three years, but I'm not sure I'll be back without Annika," said Kathy Anderson, 44, a customer service representative from Greensburg, Pa. Anderson was among Sorenstam's gallery on a day that began cool and cloudy when Sorenstam began play at 8:54 but turned steamy after noon.
Anderson wore a tank top with "Don't Go Annika" air-brushed on it. She planned to wear another shirt with a homemade design this weekend featuring the colors of the Swedish flag and "59."
Professional athletes have often struggled with retiring. Many, like Michael Jordan, have seemed to cling to their sport until finally surrendering to diminished skills.
"I think the primary reason why many can't give it up is their identity is tied to the crowd cheering," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "Many don't know what to do without it."
Yesterday, it was the crowds that seemed to need Sorenstam, not the reverse. A police officer and tournament official repeatedly shouted to fans to give her more space when she completed her round. "We'll miss you," shouted one fan as Sorenstam walked away.