This week Annika Sorenstam, one of golf’s greats, is playing in the US Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (above) in North Carolina. It’s the first time she has teed it up in this championship since she “stepped away from the game” in 2008 and it wasn’t something that was ever really on her radar until she was victorious in last year’s US Senior Women’s Open. That gave her an automatic spot into this field and she decided to take it, principally to continue inspiring and encouraging the next generation of golfers.
At the age of 51 Sorenstam has nothing to prove to anyone. Ten majors are scattered throughout her 72 LPGA victories and in the last fourteen years since she stopped playing seriously she has excelled in business and done what she wanted to most of all, that is, settle down and have a family. And now she wants her children to see her play for real, not just on grainy old television broadcasts.
There’s another reason why playing at Pine Needles is irresistible to her. Back in 1995 Annika broke through for her first win in America by landing the big one, the US Women’s Open. In 1996 she came to Pine Needles to defend her title at the course owned and run by the renowned Peggy Kirk Bell and her family, with whom Annika was forging a strong bond. The Swede was once again successful and admits that for a number of reasons, not least her relationship with Peggy, who was a veritable tour de force in the women’s game, Pine Needles is very special to her. Hence the commitment to return and compete this week.I never did get the opportunity to play golf with Annika. She turned pro and played her first season on the Ladies’ European Tour in 1993, the year I was out with a bad back and subsequently had surgery. In 1994 she was off to the LPGA and rocketing out of my orbit but I got to know her through Solheim Cups and later via various broadcasting duties of mine.
For all her success and seeming assuredness the very shy young girl still lurks within. There are well documented stories of early Swedish training camps where Annika used to make sure she never won, always finishing second so she wouldn’t have to make a winner’s speech. Pia Nilsson, the national coach, spotted this and wisely decreed the first two place finishers should both make speeches. After that Annika decided she might as well try and win because it was likely she was going to have to speak anyway.
There are still traces of that shyness in her. In early 2015 Annika was one of seven women invited to be an honorary member of the R&A. This was groundbreaking stuff, bringing to an end 260 years of male-only membership. However, it wasn’t until the Open in July that year that Annika was able to visit St Andrews for the first time as a member of the club. When she arrived I happened to be on the eighteenth, having just completed a full recce of the course and its condition in preparation for the week’s broadcasting. Obviously relieved to see a familiar face she hurried over to me and explained this was her first visit since becoming a member and what should she do about gaining access to the clubhouse?
I looked over to the front door of the club and saw an imposing, uniformed doorman on duty who was challenging all who approached. Annika obviously didn’t wish to run the gauntlet of facing him on her own so I grabbed her arm, propelled her over and introduced her to this imposing gent, informing him she was a new member. He morphed into full welcoming mode and she was ushered in, disappearing from my view as I returned to the course to finish my work. At that moment it was rather useful that in a former life as a student at St Andrews I had actually worked as a waitress in the clubhouse, so I wasn’t quite as daunted as some!I remember being surprised at the great Annika having this degree of insecurity that she wouldn’t march up to the door on her own. On reflection, however, I found it illuminating that despite being a world-famous, one-name legend, there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance in her body. She didn’t assume that she would be recognised or that she would gain entry without some kind of explanation. I can’t imagine she would ever utter the “Don’t you know who I am?” phrase.
It was quite touching, in a humbling kind of way, to learn that underneath it all she is just like the rest of us. Well, at least a little bit.