The world’s greatest female golfer shares stories from Tour, the secrets of her Mission Hills course and gives advice to the shy young Chinese up-and-comers.
In 2001, Annika Sorenstam won her first LPGA major, it wouldn’t be her last. By the time she finished her career, leaving the pro tour behind at just 38-years-old, Ms. 59, as she’s known for being the only lady to mark that score in competition, had 72 tour victories, 18 international tournament wins and 10 majors. The Swedish-American, dual-citizen is widely considered the best female to have played the game, and she ended her career holding the top spot on the LPGA money list, but to her, as HERE! discovered during an exclusive interview at Mission Hills-Dongguan, there are bigger things than being the greatest.
The Annika Foundation, tasked with growing the sport and promoting active lifestyles for children, runs four youth tournaments for girls. This year, the Fifth Annika Invitational at Mission Hills was won by Liu Yan, who finished two under par in the August tournament. Annika said she’s confident many of these girls will be “making their mark in golf,” but we wanted to know how the girls made a mark on her, and some of the wilder stories to come out of life on the LPGA tour.
“Annika, I want you to know that there’s no short cut to success.” I can still hear him and I can still see it.
Who would you say was your idol when you started playing golf?
I mean it was mostly the men, but that was just the access I had. It was not until later when I played college golf that I could see the LPGA up front and close. And then playing on the [Swedish] National Team I was invited to play on a European lady’s event and that is as close as I came at the time, and they inspired me, but I was 16 or 17 at the time and I was already bit by the golf bug. We had Lisa Neumann who won the Open in 1988, but as far as role models it was the ones I saw and I read about. That was all the access I had. I didn’t work with anybody I didn’t know any of the pros. It was more observing from afar.
Being an idol yourself, how did that change you as a person?
Of course it’s flattering and it makes you proud that girls or boys look up to what you have achieved. I think I embraced being a role model in a positive way, because to me I know that role models impacted me and so I feel that I can make a difference by the things I do and the things I say. People watch, and to be able to change a person’s life in a positive direction, I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that.
I certainly embraced it and I think I embrace it more now than I did when I played because when I played I was a little bit more focused on what I had to do. And now I’m focusing on growing the game of golf and so you see it from a bigger perspective. Now, getting more involved in junior golf and seeing what is happening around the world in tournaments out there, I would say I was a different person playing than what I am doing now. This is a big part of what I do, because the tournament is run through my foundation.
What is the wildest fan experience you’ve had?
I’ve had some bizarre. I had a stalker for a while, which is not a fun experience. We had a restraining order and the guy would show up a lot of places so that made me a little nervous. He actually threatened to kill my husband. That was really scary.
But from a fun perspective, I mean you know people dress up like you at Halloween. At the Solheim Cup, they were very supportive, but to me there is nothing better than seeing a little kid, a little boy or girl, come up and be so delighted to get their autograph, that’s just the coolest thing.
You’ve said you were shy as a youth. Can you see any scenario where people with introverted, more introspective tendencies—say visualizing a shot—would have an advantage in individual sport?
There’s no doubt that I’m shy by nature, I would miss on purpose so I didn’t win and have to give a winning speech, but also you know I realized my will to win was a lot stronger than facing the fear of giving a speech.
Maybe, I’ve never really thought about it, but I do analyze things. I’d like to say that course management was one of my strengths. Some players are a little more feel-players; some players play with their heart, they just kind of go with it. I would analyze my shots and figure out what I’ve got to work on. What are my weaknesses and what are my strengths? I started analyzing my scores from when I was 16. I did kind of a spread sheet and it was probably unheard of, people tracking greens and regulations or fairway hits.
I remember my scoring average at the time was like 77-something and every year my goal was to get it down and maybe it’s kind of ironic, when you look at the LPGA, that I have the lowest scoring average in history. So I guess things kind of come in full circle.
The Annika Invitational gives young ladies the chance to gain skill and confidence. Can you share a story from your mental development as a competitor?
Yeah, I have several stories. I think the one thing, I was about 15-years-old and I was hitting golf balls and it was raining. I didn’t think that was fun, so I called my dad and I said, “Can you pick me up? I don’t want to be wet.” And then he picked me up and we drove away. When we drove away, we could see some other kids hitting balls in the rain and I will never forget my dad turning to me—my dad has always been instrumental in my career, but he’s never been pushy—and I remember him saying to me, “Annika, I want you to know that there’s no short cut to success.” I can still hear him and I can still see it. I realized, if I wanted to be a good golfer, you can’t quit because it’s boring or it’s raining, or it’s tough.
Having children—a major decision in life, a major focus for the family oriented Chinese culture—as mentor to these and other children have you had to answer questions like this? How do you or would you answer that for young women wanting to make a career in sports?
I would say that absolutely you can find a balance in your life to do that. I think you become a better mother when you have a career. Just because you’re used to the balance, you’re used to the hard work. A lot more times, you’re a lot more efficient. I think the statistics say that working moms do better than women with no children. Like I said I would encourage them to do that. The best advice I got one time is that I can do anything, but I can’t do everything. And that is sometimes what I struggle with. I like to do more than I can allow myself. So I’m learning how to focus and I’m learning how to prioritize and it feels a lot better.
They have signs and it’s a little snake, like a little cobra snake, and it’s like, ‘you know what, it’s not worth it.’
If we take a look at the courses that you’ve designed, what is your signature design element?
I’ve finished three—here, South Africa and one in Korea. I like it to look natural. It needs to look in a way that it’s been there forever. I like to make sure that all the par threes are in different directions, north, south, east and west. So you have different wind directions.
I like to have a drivable par four. Par fives should all be reachable; they should be able to have course management to them. I love to have many tees. I remember, especially when we were building a course in Korea, they think that the ladies tees are just two markers up there, they’re like let’s just put the tee markers over there and I remember saying, “No, no, no.” Women are a big part of golf clubs. And it’s the biggest growing segment of the game. We need to pay attention to the angles for the ladies, too, and not feel like they’ve become an afterthought.
You designed and gave your name to the Annika Course. What are the secrets of your course?
Brian Curley had done all the other courses here, and so my input was more from a player’s perspective. Where would you put the tees? Where would the bunker placement be? And of all of that. They knew this was the beginning, and this was the end because [all the courses] come together.
We have six par fours, six par threes and six par fives, so it’s a little unique in that sense. It’s quite a tough walking course. It’s quite hilly. There are a lot of angulations on this golf course. There are a lot of rounding hills. So I guess the key here is really knowing your distance. I mean, a few holes come to mind when you hit it up hill, you’ve really got to know your distance control. There a lot of par fives. You have opportunities for birdies, par threes can be a little tougher, number seven is really a beautiful par three, probably the highest point.
At the Annika Golf Academy in Florida, or during time playing leisurely with friends, what is the single most given advice for improving a swing?
Well, everybody swings so hard and they swing with their arms. That’s the biggest mistake. So I try to tell people you’ve got to rotate and use your whole body and feel like you have a tempo in your swing. That would be one, and number two, people spend very little time on putting. They might hit two shots to get the green and then all of the sudden they three or four put, and when they do come to the green they spend so much time reading a put and the pace or the speed of the put is off. So again swing more with your body and not so hard. And then if you work on your putting, focus equally as much on your speed as you do on your line.
You’ve been playing since you were a child, there must be countless stories to tell from days on the fairways, what’s the oddest place you’ve found an out of bounds ball?
Well, I’ve actually ended up in a pair of rain pants. It wasn’t OB, but it was laying under a chair and we had to do the rules there. I think it bounced and rolled into the leg and so it wasn’t difficult. It was a little rules thing there. It was Scotland somewhere, so I hit it to the side and it rolled up into someone’s pants.
I’ve played in South Africa and there are places where you don’t go. They have signs and it’s a little snake, like a little cobra snake, and it’s just like, ‘you know what, it’s not worth it.’ Whether it was OB or not, I think it’s time to drop and not waste your time going in there.
You are in China, a land with more superstitions than we have ‘old wives tales,’ do you have any superstitions?
I’m not superstitious, but I have routines. Some people argue that that is the same thing. Routines as far as a warm-up routine, prestart routine. I did have a horse shoe in my bag. Somebody gave it to me and then I had it with me, but I don’t consider myself superstitious. I wouldn’t have three coins in one pocket or I wouldn’t go back to the same restaurant, or I wear the same shirt if I played well.
If you are forced to skip a routine, do you feel that you might not play as well? That you feel off?
I do feel off, and again like it’s all about strategy and it’s all about repeating myself. So yeah, I would say that if I rushed, if I was nervous and I rushed, or if I did something I probably wouldn’t play as well.
Do you have any odd talents?
Other than golf? No, probably not. I only do things that I’m decent at. I don’t enjoy doing things that I’m not good at. Maybe that’s for everybody. But I can certainly not sing or dance or play an instrument. I can juggle, but hobbies, I have a lot of hobbies. I do love to cook. I do love other sports. But no, I wouldn’t call myself multi-talented.