Annika Sorenstam was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony on Monday, March 23. Due to the coronavirus crisis, that ceremony has been postponed. Even so, given the historic nature of the honor, we are republishing a long-form feature on Sorenstam from 2017.
Everyone had their “Conference Call Bingo” cards ready. Who just joined? Did we lose somebody? Missed that last point in the crosstalk. I’m sorry that (dog barking, child screaming, doorbell clanging, fire alarm announcing the end of mankind) was me. Such were the affairs of modern business. A phone line opened through the magic of a few touched buttons at the prompting of a soothing computerized voice, followed by the awkward silence of a large-scale meeting where no one could see anyone else.
It was like attending an orientation in the dark, only worse because no one knew where their fellow participants were or if they were even clothed, a situation bound to promote stilted and stammering conversation. But by 2017, conferences from a den or kitchen or basement-turned-office were as ubiquitous as bitter coffee and watercooler gossip in the ancient times of the 20th century. No one thought twice about having a dozen people from far-flung regions around the globe on the line to ask the Solheim Cup captain a few questions. The setup wasn’t ideal – it’s always better to converse eye-to-eye – but in today’s culture it had become as common as corn in Iowa.
“Hello, everybody, this is Annika Sörenstam,” the captain of Team Europe said when the lines opened. A chorus of “Hi’s” erupted, which prompted the 46-year-old mother of two to say: “Is there no moderator? No?… OK, we can do this on our own. Let’s get started. If you have questions, just fire away.”
For the next half hour Sörenstam took charge, managing her own virtual press conference with charm, wit, wisdom, thoroughness, a perfect ear for how her words would look in print, and the kind of command presence that those who have known her for the last decade have come to expect.
“I think being a good captain means knowing your team,” she said early in the session, going well beyond the sound-bite answer that no one would have begrudged her. “I know that sounds obvious but how do they react and how do they want to be approached? What makes them tick? And how can I, together with the leadership team, inspire these players just by knowing them?”
Like the mechanics of a good backswing, leadership skills can be taught and learned. Voice modulation (always project a sense of calm), optimism, setting an example (show, don’t tell), absorbing criticism toward yourself but deflecting praise toward your team, managing the details (make sure your team has the tools it needs to excel), listening without vacillating once a decision has been made, rallying everyone around a clear and simple mission, fighting for those around you, letting your experts excel: Sörenstam has blossomed in all these areas, even though some of them come as unnaturally to her as human flight.
“It’s such an honor,” Sörenstam said in a recent one-on-one chat. “The key, for me at least, is to have a good working relationship and be completely transparent with the players. I’m a big believer in preparation so my goal is to be ready, to make sure there are no surprises and the players have everything taken care of so they can focus on playing their very best.”
She believes it, but that response could have come from cue cards or talking points. There is one tenet of leadership, however, that the Solheim Cup captain embraces in her core, one where she leans closer and thrusts her shoulders back, something that drives her passion and brightens the spark in her eyes. You only need listen to her for a few minutes for some version of the Latin root inspirare to come up. Inspiring others, a phrase athletes throw out as often as the “you knows” and “it is what it is” verbal ticks, has become far more than a catchphrase or pat answer for Sörenstam. It is her calling, a mission she embraces with the fervor of a revivalist.
“Everything that we do now,” she said more than once, punching each syllable. “Everything is about giving back and paying forward, providing inspiration to the next generation. My business tagline is ‘More than Golf,’ but it’s not a slogan. Whether it’s the junior tournaments, the foundation and everything that goes with that, the (Annika) Academy, the college event, clothing, (golf course) design, whatever I’m doing has to inspire others to be their best, to work hard to be as good as they can be. It has to reflect who I am. I drive it and I live it.”
Her voice gets higher and more emphatic and she touches you for the first time, a tap on the arm. Are you listening? Pay attention as she reels off the list of things that drive her passion: the Annika Invitationals, four junior events in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and China with a fifth on the drawing board for Abu Dhabi; the Annika Cup, a match-play competition in Sweden for young girls ages 13 to 15; the Annika Intercollegiate, a college tournament that, according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking, has a stronger field than the NCAA Championship; and the Annika Award presented to the outstanding female collegiate golfer every year, an award that, like the Fred Haskins Award on the men’s side, figures to long outlive its namesake.
Her influence can be seen at the Junior Solheim Cup, a girls’ match-play competition held before the larger contest, where 22 of the 24 juniors participating this year have played in one or more of the Annika Invitationals.
“She goes to every one of those tournaments (that bear her name) and the girls hang on her every word,” Sörenstam’s husband, Mike McGee, said. “It means the world to her because it is, truly, so much more than golf. We have media training, she talks about nutrition, fitness, the importance of education, the mental side, overcoming fear, fighting through setbacks, discipline, determination: she uses her story to teach it all. So far, we’ve impacted over 450 girls from 43 different countries. We have 315 of them playing Division I (college) golf right now.”
Sörenstam’s inspirational crusade has been going on long enough that the universe of people she has impacted extends far beyond junior golfers.
“She put it in our minds that we, as Swedes, could become the best golfers in the world,” said Pernilla Lindberg, a 31-year-old former competitive skier from Bollnas, Sweden, in her eighth season on the LPGA Tour. “We’d had top (Swedish) players before. So, I don’t think you’ll get the same stories from (current) Swedish players that you get from the Korean players about Se Ri Pak because we’d had other players that we looked up to.” Those included major champions like Liselotte Neumann and Helen Alfredsson; an assortment of winners from the LPGA and Ladies European Tour like Sophie Gustafson, Catrin Nilsmark, Carin Koch; and the dean of Swedish women’s golf, Pia Nilsson, who captained the 1998 European Solheim Cup team. “They showed us that we could go to the U.S. and play. But Annika showed us that even a little girl who grew up in cold-weather Sweden could be the very best,” Lindberg said. “That was the impact she had.”
Sörenstam wasn’t just the best in the world in her time. She was arguably the greatest of all time. The numbers are staggering: 72 LPGA victories, 89 wins worldwide and 10 major championships in 15 seasons with a record eight Rolex Player of the Year awards and a record six Vare Trophies for low stroke average. She was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 2003, 2004 and 2005, years when Serena Williams won two U.S. Opens and a Wimbledon singles title, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and company won gold in the Athens Olympics and Maria Sharapova burst onto the scene. Annika eclipsed them all. And it wasn’t that close. She had three victories or more in 12 different seasons with eight LPGA wins in 2001 and 11 in 2002.
“She was really, really good,” said Juli Inkster, the two-time American Solheim Cup captain. Inkster, who never offers faint praise, had a few run-ins with Sörenstam over the years, including at the 2015 Solheim Cup in Germany. Inkster thought her fellow Hall of Famer, who served as a vice captain to fellow Swede Koch, had given advice to some of Europe’s players during the matches in violation of the rules. “I felt like I needed to stand up for my team and I did,” Inkster said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve always gotten along. I think she always respected me, especially with me raising two kids while playing out here.
“But she’s a helluva golfer, man. She was sneaky long and her iron game was amazing. There was no right-to-left, no left-to-right. Those (iron) shots were like lasers. There wasn’t a pin Annika didn’t feel comfortable attacking. For her, a bad day was hitting 14 greens and averaging 15 feet (from the hole). When she putted good, she beat us. When she putted great, she beat us by 10.”
Today, Sörenstam is the LPGA’s version of Paul McCartney, golf royalty who causes the best in today’s game to stop what they’re doing when she walks by, even though many modern players never saw her hit a shot. “We just missed each other,” Lindberg said. “In the fall of 2008, I played in the LET event in Sweden as an amateur for the last time. That was just after Annika announced her retirement. So, going into the event, everyone in Sweden knew that it would be Annika’s last time playing, which made it incredibly special. That event was the only time I got to be around her (as a player).
“Sitting at home in Sweden, I didn’t get to watch much women’s golf because there wasn’t a lot of it on television. Even if there had been (coverage), it would have been on in the middle of the night. So, I got a few minutes of updates on morning TV, which was usually news that Annika had won another title. Every week, ‘Annika won another title.’ It was just a given that she was going to win or be in contention every week.
Stories of great ballstrikers grow with time, especially after their deaths. In 36-hole matches, Bob Jones worried that during the second round he might hit tee shots into his previous divots. Byron Nelson hit so many flagsticks that he started aiming away from them. Ben Hogan’s caddie once lost a ball in the sun while shagging shots and not only did Hogan hit him in the head, before the beleaguered caddie could get up from his knees, the Hawk hit him in the head again. Yarns or not, those stories carry just enough credence to still be told in locker rooms around the world.
With Annika, everybody is still alive to verify them. “I’ve caddied since 1979 and I’ve never seen anyone that accurate,” said Terry McNamara, who was on Annika’s bag from 1999 until her retirement. “I lived 50 miles from her so every other day when we were home I’d drive down to Lake Nona (in Orlando) for practice. I brought a catcher’s mitt to shag balls and (from her wedges) through a 6-iron, unless it was windy, I never had to move more than a step. One step right, catch it. One step left, catch the next one.
“One day I pulled a bench out onto the range and sat there with my catcher’s mitt while she hit pitching wedge. For 10 shots in a row, I never had to stand up or move on the bench. That’s how she practiced. She practiced accuracy. She practiced rhythm.
“I see people on the range today and they might be out there six hours but they’re talking half the time. When Annika went to work, it was work. We might only be there for four hours but there wasn’t any ‘How’s your mom?’ stuff. She dialed in and that was it.”
Stories of the focus and precision are legendary. “I never really saw anybody in the gallery,” Sörenstam said. “Early in my career, I was on a budget so I would stay in (private) housing. The families were nice and they usually lived on the golf course so you didn’t have to rent a car. And I always knew that I would have fans, even if nobody else knew me. But there were times when I’d come back in and ask the family: ‘Did you get out to the tournament today?’ And they’d say, ‘You didn’t see us? We were right there.’ I would say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,’ because I didn’t. I saw my next shot and that was pretty much it.”
Valerie Hogan supposedly followed Ben during The Masters one year and when the round was over Ben said, “Did you see me hit any shots today?” The story goes that Valerie said, “I saw you hit all of them. I walked every hole. You didn’t see me?” Ben said, “I guess I didn’t,” and Valerie didn’t follow him again. Both the Hogans have passed away. Annika and the families who followed her eagerly confirm her stories.
“In the mid-’90s, they played a made-for-TV event at Aviara (Golf Club in Carlsbad, Calif.),” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said. “When I was (working) with TaylorMade I lived at Aviara so I walked 10 or 12 holes with Annika. Now, this was when she was at the height of her career. But this was also not a real serious event. Players and caddies were relaxing and taking in the scenery – there are a lot of visual distractions out there – because it was OK not to play perfect golf. Not Annika. She was locked in to what she was doing. Even the scenery around Aviara couldn’t distract her. She was completely focused on birdieing every hole. It was noticeably different from the other players. I remember driving out of there thinking, you can’t get into her head.”
Whan didn’t get to know Sörenstam on a personal level until he became commissioner in 2010, a little more than a year after Annika retired. “I put together an advisory committee,” he said. That committee included former LPGA commissioner and Arnold Palmer confidant Charlie Mechem; former JCPenney chairman W.R. Howell, Herb Lotman, the man responsible for frozen hamburgers at McDonalds, and, as Whan put it, “a couple of top players who were no longer playing because, early on, I didn’t need to be asking stupid questions to players who were currently on tour.”
The two players on Whan’s committee were Nancy Lopez and Sörenstam. “We had a call every two months and got together once or twice a year,” the commissioner said. “I was trying silly things – events without purses and what would eventually become the UL International Crown – so they were trying to keep me on the edge of the cliff without going over it. Annika and Nancy gave me an invaluable perspective on what it was like to be on tour.”
Whan also called on Sörenstam for a job he knew she would relish. “Once we moved a lot of our player development and orientation down to the Symetra Tour, I asked Annika to come in and talk about fitness and nutrition while you’re traveling and playing a full schedule,” Whan said. “Of course, she agreed. But I’m speaking right before her and probably half the group had their cell phones out checking texts or updating their social media accounts. Then Annika walks in and it was like Adele had taken the stage. Everybody sat up straight and there were no wandering eyes. Just her presence drew them in.”
Whan also credits Sörenstam with one of the LPGA Tour’s most important business relationships. “Annika had a great friendship with Terry Duffy (chairman of CME Group) and had played in his pro-am for a long time,” the commissioner said. “So, I went to her and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about going to Terry about sponsoring a tournament but I don’t know Terry. Can you give me any advice?’
“Annika was the calming voice when Terry asked me, ‘Why do I need a golf tournament? I’ve got the best players (in my pro-am), my customers are happy and I’m not spending a million dollars on a purse.’ That’s how a lot of meetings with Terry start. But because I was with Annika – she’d invited me down – things got better after that. I give her a lot of credit. That (meeting) led to the CME Group Tour Championship and later to the Race to the CME Globe.”
Then Whan paused in deep thought, as if ponding an inconceivable concept. “I hear that she was different,” he said. “She’s so amiable and open, so easy to reach, it’s hard for me to imagine her being any other way.”
Different is not exactly the best descriptor. Everyone changes. Everybody matures, and grows. The character of every adult is built on the scar tissue of regret. But before Sörenstam became Annika, joining the stratospheric company of one-name athletes like Serena, Tiger and Ali; before she became the kind of icon that a company like MasterCard would use in television ads a full nine years after she hit her last shot in competition; before she would be the kind of role model that the LPGA commissioner would say “answers the question a lot of players think about a lot but won’t ask out loud, which is: ‘What’s next? When this ends, will I be able to apply this experience (of being a tour player) somewhere else?’ They struggle with that in silence. Annika provides the example and the answer;” and before motherhood and meetings about things like brand maintenance, she was, in many ways, another person altogether.
But unlike many people who shed their youthful skins, Annika’s transformation wasn’t gradual or evolutionary. It happened in an instant, with one seminal moment in an historic event that transcended golf and connected the world with Tom and Gunilla Sörenstam’s daughter, the quiet girl from a tiny, cold-weather town.