News & Opinion

Annika Sorenstam returns to LPGA … sort of

Annika Sorenstam at the 2016 Evian Championship
Annika Sorenstam holds the trophy that bears her name and recognizes the LPGA’s top performer in major championships each year.

Retired superstar, who stays busy as a wife, mother, foundation head and global golf leader, will tee it up with goals of another kind

ORLANDO, Fla. – Annika Sorenstam adds candles to her birthday cake each year just as we mere mortals do. But as the rest of us age, she just gets busier.

This week, her clubs will get a slight dusting as Sorenstam competes at the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. She will compete in a 50-player celebrity division, and not against the field of 25 LPGA champions (including Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang, Brooke Henderson and Lexi Thompson). Nonetheless, it gets her back into the competitive arena for a few days, and that’s a good thing.

The Diamond Resorts TOC kicks off the LPGA’s 2021 campaign, the first of 34 tournaments, with total purses of $75 million. It is an Olympic year (August, Tokyo) as well as a Solheim Cup year (September, Toledo), and one that should deliver great excitement as we work our way back into normalcy.

It has been more than 12 years since Sorenstam stepped away from the LPGA and competitive golf at 37 to start a family with her husband, Mike McGee. No regrets there. They have a daughter, Ava, who is 11, and a son, Will, 9. Will’s enthusiasm for golf has rubbed off on mom. When he wants to hit balls after school, or play a few holes at Lake Nona, it only makes sense for his mother to be out there, too. On a recent December afternoon, she swooped by school to pick him up and the two played seven holes before darkness set in. It was perfect.

So, while her “return” to competitive golf is very light, and quite sporadic – Sorenstam competed in the PNC Championship (formerly the PNC Father-Son) alongside her father, Tom, last month – it’s nice to know there still is a flickering spark inside her to get out and play. She has enjoyed plenty of honors for her competitive days, from induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame to Solheim Cup captaincy to receiving (along with Gary Player and, posthumously, Babe Didrikson Zaharias) the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week

The Freedom Medal unfortunately was tangled in some controversy, as it arrived from outgoing President Donald Trump on the day after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Sorenstam, who was born in Sweden but is a naturalized American citizen, told Golf Channel on Tuesday that Jan. 6 was “a dark day in America’s history,” but she did not regret attending her medal ceremony, originally slated for last March. “Looking back, I don’t second-guess,” she said. 

This week, Sorenstam gets back to something she frankly hadn’t missed a whole lot: playing golf. Her many business ventures and partnerships and overseeing the direction of her foundation has kept her plenty busy. But now she seems to be smitten by the game once again. 

“I wasn’t interested in it,” Sorenstam said recently, seated in a rocking chair (the irony!) overlooking the Tranquilo Golf Course at Four Seasons a few days before the holidays. “Now, I’d like to hit the ball well again. I’d like to be able to score a little again. I don’t hit it as far, or as straight, but still, I like being out there. I like the challenge of just maybe ‘maintaining’ it. It’s not about me. It’s about creating awareness again for this tournament and for the Annika Foundation, which will be part of it. (Sorenstam has signed on as a Diamond Resorts spokeswoman, and Diamond Resorts will partner with her in her foundation events.)

“So again, it’s not about me. I’m not playing for the money, or the world ranking, or whatever it is. I’m not out there to get more trophies.”

Alas, she collected plenty of those. Seventy-two LPGA trophies, to be precise, 10 of those representing major victories. At her peak, Sorenstam had an Iron Byron swing set on auto-pilot, and she struck the ball crisper, and more consistently, and got it into the hole better than anyone. Amid a new era on the LPGA that has featured far more parity, we sometimes forget just how good, and how dominant, that Sorenstam was. In one ridiculous stretch of play from 2000 to 2005, Sorenstam teed it up 127 times and won 48 tournaments, a 37.8 winning percentage. She held her own playing against the men in a PGA Tour event at Colonial, and became the only LPGA player to shoot 59.

Given Sorenstam’s incessant drive, it should be no surprise that she has been successful outside of the gallery ropes, too. Her foundation is an international venture that continues to teach and groom players from around the globe. The 13th annual Annika Invitational, now played in collaboration with Diamond Resorts, wrapped up Monday in St. Augustine, Fla. At the 75th U.S. Women’s Open played in December, 55 players in the field – from world No. 4 Nelly Korda to 21 of the 24 amateurs – had a connection with Sorenstam’s foundation. Sorenstam expects to increase that global presence and impact as the newly appointed president of the International Golf Federation, where she succeeds Peter Dawson. In an Olympic year – as of now, golf still is on for Tokyo in August – Sorenstam is determined to make sure that the game continues to be represented in a proper way.

“I think Peter and the team did an excellent job, and I want to continue their vision, and make sure the golf is well executed and well done, that the Olympics benefit from golf and that golf benefits from the Olympics,” she said. “It’s a win-win, but with changing times [amid COVID-19], it’s not easy.”

In announcing Sorenstam to step in for Dawson, the former R&A chief executive who served as the IGF’s president for a decade, IGF board chairman Jay Monahan saluted Sorenstam’s ongoing work to “promoting women’s golf at all levels through her foundation.” He would add, “She is the ideal person to succeed Peter in this role.”

The Annika Foundation was able to stage only one of its seven planned tournaments in 2020, that being near Sorenstam’s home in Orlando last January. In 2021, an ambitious schedule returns with tournaments planned for Sweden, China, New Zealand, Argentina and Lake Elmo, Minn. Sorenstam did what she could in 2020, using technology to try to keep in touch, conducting virtual Q&A sessions and virtual clinics. Golfers give back, and few do it to the extent that Sorenstam has.

“I love being a part of that, I do, just to see the excitement in these girls,” she said. “If you watched the U.S. Women’s Open, there’s a lot of good amateurs, and a lot of them have played in our tournaments. So, you feel like you have a part in the future.”

As for the present, Sorenstam did have one of those aforementioned birthdays in October, this being a milestone one. She turned 50, and considered it one of her best birthdays, even with social distancing, with friends reaching out from around the globe. When we all were younger, 50 seemed, well, so old, right? She laughs. Somehow, she has landed on that square. “I don’t really feel that way,” she said. “I’m like, I feel 30. Let’s just keep going that way.”

One perk, besides the obligatory AARP card, to her new age status? Sorenstam is eligible to compete in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, recently rescheduled to July 29-Aug. 1 at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn. The new dates couldn’t be better. Though she hasn’t officially committed, Sorenstam certainly has an interest in playing. Being that the event is in the heart of summer, when her children are out of school, just adds to the overall appeal.

“I am eligible, so we’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I’m not interested in a second career. I would want my family to be with me. I could be ready.…”

The voice trails off, and one can tell where this is heading. The wheels were spinning. This is Annika Sorenstam. Yes, she will be ready. Count on it.

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