Originally featured in the April 2009 issue of AVIDGOLFER Magazine.
Interview by Art Stricklin & Rick Arnett
Shy Swede turned American-based golfing superstar Annika Sorenstam has certainly come a long way from purposely tanking golf tournaments so she wouldn’t have to give a victory speech.
The 38-year-old, who recently retired, spent years as the world’s No. 1 female golfer and now sits on top of a self-made golf empire which includes 72 professional golf victories.
She made $22 million in prize money, plus millions more in multiple endorsements and product lines including recently introduced cologne and Annika wine, all plus the satisfaction she changed golf history.
Sorenstam followed in the pathway of Fort Worth’s Kathy Whitworth, and Nancy Lopez as the dominant female players of their respective golf eras.
But only Sorenstam galvanized interest in women’s golf in a way never seen before or since by competing against men at the PGA Tour’s Colonial event in Fort Worth in 2003, the first such attempt by a female in nearly 50 years.
She did it in such a graceful and classy way, that it even turned initial doubters like Arnold Palmer into willing believers and supporters of her golfing quest.
Her first shot, splitting the fairway on the 10th hole at Colonial Country Club, accomplished as much for her quiet, yet relentless, successful style as any one of her 10 LPGA major championships.
Unlike many of today’s eager amateur players, male and female, Sorenstam began her career, not as a golf-programmed junior, but as a multi-sport athlete from an active and sports loving family in Sweden.
She played soccer and tennis as a youngster, and also became one of the top junior skiers in her winter wonderland country. But it was golf where she was destined to make her lasting mark.
After much amateur golfing success, balanced against the other sports where he succeeded, she accepted a golf scholarship to the University of Arizona.
She turned pro in 1994 and immediately started her winning ways on a scale rarely seen by any golfers, past or present.
She captured the U.S. Women’s Open in 1995, along with 1996 and 2006, plus just about every other important LPGA tournament including the Nabisco Dinah Shore and the Women’s British Open.
Sorenstam first became No. 1 in the world in 1997. Karrie Webb briefly took that spot in 1999, but Sorenstam soon regained the title as the best female golfer in the world.
She announced her retirement in early 2008 and played her last official event this past fall. Today, she has a variety of projects including her own teaching academy in Orlando, several different retail products from wine to cologne and sponsorships from several national companies.
Recently, Sorenstam was in Dallas to speak to the SMU Athletic Forum about her longtime golfing career and her remembrances of her historic week at Colonial. Before her speech, she took time to speak with me before being interviewed by AVIDGOLFER’s Rick Arnett during the luncheon.
AG:How do you like retirement?
AS: I don’t feel like I’ve really started it yet.
What do you mean?
Well, I got married two months ago and we went on a three-week honeymoon. Then, I did some work for my foundation. We had what we called the Annika Celebration, which is actually a televised pro-am. I’ve been working with my companies and my academy at the Ginn Resort in Orlando, so it’s been pretty busy.
Have you played much golf?
I just played nine holes at the academy and for the pro-am. I haven’t shot 80 yet, so that’s good, but I know without practicing my game will suffer. I just enjoy doing a lot of other fun stuff. I’m ambassador for the USGA and I’m working to help get golf in the Olympics in 2016. I don’t have to be inside the ropes to enjoy it.
You were obviously still playing well and were one of the top players last year, so why did you decide that 2008 would be your last year on the LPGA Tour?
I just felt the timing was right. Lorena (Ochoa) had recently become the No. 1 player in the world. Paula Creamer and others were playing well. The Tour was in good shape. I did what I could on the course for 15 years. One more victory wasn’t going to change my life. I didn’t have the burning desire to practice every day. It was time. There’s more than just golf out there, but it will always be part of my life.
Last year, you made your first visit back to Colonial Country Club for a sponsors’ outing since your famous week in 2003… What was that like?
I got to see the front of the clubhouse for the first time. When I played there, I was always taken in the back way, so I never saw what the front looked like.
Thinking back, what was your favorite part of the entire Colonial experience?
It was the support, by far. It was amazing really, the people who supported me.
Were you expecting something different?
I didn’t know what to expect really, but it was fantastic. When people ask what the best moment of my career was, it’s easy to go back to Colonial for all those reasons.
Take us back to the first round where you stood before thousands of people on the 10th box at Colonial ready for your first shot of the tournament.
I was so keyed up and ready to go. I usually get out there a little more than an hour before my tee time, but I was there two hours prior because I was so ready. I saw my playing partners. I remember Aaron Barber telling me we were going to do this thing together, so I just got to the tee and tried to focus.
What was the pressure like?
I was so nervous, I didn’t know if I could get the ball airborne. I just tried to think I had hit that shot so many times before and the ball didn’t know about all those people surrounding me. Somehow I hit it and it was one of the best 4-woods of my life. I had pressure before in playoffs or the Solheim Cup, but nothing to that extent. It was an amazing day.
After you played at Colonial (missing the cut), you never played against men again, even though you had other chances. Why?
I just wanted to challenge myself and I never felt the need to do it again. I had smelled the blood of competition and knew what I needed to work on. I improved with my best years after 2003 and I give the credit for that to Colonial.
Why is that?
Now I saw the path where I wanted to go. It’s easier to go somewhere when you know where to go. That’s why it’s a highlight for me.
When you played at Colonial, you were clearly the dominant female player in the world. When Michelle Wie played against men, she hadn’t won a single pro tournament. Did that strike you as a bit strange?
Michelle and I had different motives when we played against the men. I wanted to test myself, so we had other goals.
Did Michelle ask you for any advice about playing against men when y’all played together in tournaments?
No, she never asked me anything. I would be happy to help her and give her some advice, but she never asked me.
What do you think about Michelle’s still young career?
I think one of her best decisions was to go back to Tour qualifying school (last fall) and get her playing card. She has a lot of talent, but she needs to grow up and mature. Some of her decisions are easy not to be respected by professionals like myself. I would welcome a chance to help her.
Recently, on an Australian television program, Greg Norman was on the show with his new wife, Chris Evert, and said he paid out $100 million in his recent divorce. The price of freedom he called it. You didn’t pay $100 million for your divorce to David Esch did you?
No. I don’t have $100 million. I wouldn’t do that.
The LPGA has become filled with top golfers from Korea and other Asian countries, who some speak little or no English. What can be done about that?
I think we’re working on what to do. Look at myself. I didn’t speak a lot of English when I first came here and was pretty shy. You have to be able to communicate and I think they are trying.
Why have they become so successful?
They put in hours and hours of work. They’re here 7 in the morning putting and when I leave at 7 at night they’re still there putting. I could never do that. I needed more variety. If you can putt for 12 hours every day, good for you, but I never could.
What about junior golfers coming up?
People ask me how to get their kids interested in golf. I think they need to be interested themselves. When I was a junior, golf was in my blood so that’s what I did.
What else did you do as a junior?
My family was into sports so I did a lot of things. I played a lot of tennis until that kind of wore me out. I played soccer for a while until that faded away and I also skied a lot. But eventually it was golf full-time.
What are some of your other outside interests?
I like to cook. I like stocks and investing, probably not as much as I used to. I like wine; I have my teaching academy in Orlando where my sister (former University of Texas women’s star) Charlotta is a teacher. I also have some golf architecture. We’ve also run some tournaments and would like to do more now except for the bad economy.
Does your academy teach your distinctive head move you used during your career?
Early in my career I wasn’t transferring my weight properly from my right side to my left side. I used the head move as part of the weight transfer and I started hitting the ball really straight. I’m not going to mess with success.
You once said your goal was to shoot a 54. Is that still possible?
Absolutely it is.
You’re friends with Tiger Woods and played with him, once even challenging him to a pull-up competition. If you had a three-foot putt for your life, who would you want to take it, you or Tiger?
Me absolutely. No question.