Far be it from me to suggest that Sweden’s golfing men were a little slow on the uptake but if they’d been paying attention, they’d have noticed that their women had been racking up major titles and golfing achievements since 1988.
That was the year that a young, blonde, ever-smiling Swede called Liselotte Neumann won the US Women’s Open Championship, undoubtedly the biggest and best title in the women’s game, at Five Farms, Baltimore Country Club, Maryland. It made Lotta, a wee girl from Finspang, where you put your green fee in a milk churn before going out to play, a star at home, where the country was falling in love with golf anyway. The Americans loved her too and it made them start to realise that they were not the only ones who could play golf. There were Europeans who had to be reckoned with.
Lotta had been inspired by Laura Davies’s win at Plainfield, New Jersey, the year before. The Englishwoman with a no-holds-barred belter of a game had defeated Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Carner, two of the world’s greats, in an 18-hole play-off and women’s golf was never quite the same again. For a start, a lot of the Europeans who had played against Laura since they were amateurs started to think bigger….If she can do it…..Laura added clout to every event she played in on the European tour and made headlines worldwide. Just as important, she proved that major titles were not just for the Americans who played on the (then very closed) LPGA Tour.
In 1992, when team USA arrived in Scotland for the second Solheim Cup, at Dalmahoy on the outskirts of Edinburgh, nobody gave the home side a chance. They’d be slaughtered, mangled, humiliated. Instead they were magnificent, majestic, marvellous and won by 11 1/2 points to 6 1/2. Neumann and Helen Alfredsson, paired together in the foursomes and fourballs, were unbeaten and nonplussed their opponents by jabbering away in Swedish. These were not the sweet, all-American, English-speaking Swedes they knew. The two Swedes also won their singles matches but it was left to the third Swede, unplayed until the last day (sometimes captains get away with these things and there were fewer matches then) and unknown to all the Americans, to hole the winning putt.
Catrin Nilsmark, like most of her teammates, played inspired stuff and defeated Meg Mallon, who had won two major titles, the LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open, the year before, by 3 and 2. The 16th green took a pounding as the Europeans careered about, ecstatic. It was Nilsmark’s finest hour. She went on to win tournaments and in 2003 captained the winning Solheim team at Barseback but it would be hard to top Dalmahoy. There was no television coverage (result a foregone conclusion, no point, no interest), so Tony Jacklin, the Ryder Cup captain, who recognised a massive sporting upset in the making, was glued to Ceefax. [Note to younger readers, that was a teletext service, a forerunner to today’s minute by minute stuff.]
The ebullient Alfredsson, usually known as Alfie, was capable of inspired golf and in 1993 she won the Nabisco Dinah Shore, her first and as it turned out her only major title. I like to think that she jumped into the lake with Dinah but maybe Dinah had more sense. Alfie should have won the US Women’s Open at Crooked Stick that year but unravelled and Lauri Merten sneaked in to snatch the title. Whatever, life and golf were never dull with Alfie about.
Lastly but by no means least there was the incomparable Annika Sorenstam, whose numerous accomplishments included becoming world No 1, winning ten major titles and becoming the first person to win the money list in Europe and the US in the same year, some time before Henrik.
My personal favourite remains her record-setting 59 in the second round of the Standard Register Ping tournament at Moon Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, in March 2001, not least because I was there covering the event for The Times. We were sent to things in those days and got words in the paper. I have a signed copy of Golf World magazine for the week of March 23rd, with Annika on the cover beaming out at us, holding up her Callaway ball with a black number 59 inked on it. Not only did she go on to win the tournament, just holding off Se Ri Pak but she also relegated Tiger Woods, who had scotched talk of a ‘slump’ with a fist-pumping, knee-raising, rip-roaring victory at Bay Hill, to a tiny square on the cover.
I had a little triumph of my own when I persuaded the office to give me, with a pesky seven-hour time difference, more words than the men’s European Tour event that was being given top billing that week, 450-500 words to my 250-300. When Annika, who started at the 10th, much to the discomfort of ESPN, who were televising the event with a limited number of cameras, birdied the first eight holes, I started mithering London to give me more words. When Annika birdied the first four holes of her back nine, I pestered and pleaded again. Words granted and I had time to see Annika, who was playing with her sister Charlotta, the defending champion, run her putt for a 58 past the hole – but not too far.
You’ve got to hand it to the Swedes. They know a bit about spectacular golf.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of the Swedish golfers I’ve met on my travels and Henrik Stenson’s fantastic Open victory set me to thinking back to some of my favourite Swedish moments, in no particular order.
It was 1997 and my second visit to The Masters at Augusta. I was invited to a do in the clubhouse and a couple of us sneaked off to take a peek at the players’ locker room. The one set of clubs left there overnight belonged to Jesper Parnevik and, very unprofessionally (most pros hate people poking at their precious clubs) we had a good ole riffle through his clubs and a couple of putts up and down the locker room with his rather peculiar-shaped putter. Didn’t seem to do him any harm (or good). He finished 21st.
In 1993 I was recovering from back surgery and despite my absence leaving the field clear for Annika Sorenstam, the future world No 1 failed to win in her rookie year on the Ladies’ European Tour. My first sight of her hitting a golf ball was a tee shot in a practice round for the 1994 Solheim Cup at The Greenbrier. The great JoAnne Carner, the US captain, resplendent in a stars-and-stripes-spangled baseball cap, was also at the tee and she cheerfully called out, “NOW I see what all the fuss is about!” At that stage Annika had only one professional win to her name – the Australian Open, which she’d won at Royal Adelaide earlier that year. She had yet to bring America and the wider golfing world to its knees.
It was back in the early 1980s in my amateur days that Sweden stepped up a gear or two with their professional approach to the game, their preparation and their players. They had a production line of talent and spearheading this on the women’s side was Liv Wollin – a six footer with an extraordinarily effective hockey-like swing. She was the first player I ever saw lie flat on her tummy to read a putt, a real worm’s eye view. There’s nothing new under the sun Camillo Villegas.
Any time you win anything in this game you can usually look back and see where the luck ran your way. And it did for Ireland in the women’s European Team Championships at Royal Waterloo Golf Club in Belgium in 1983. We had fought our way through to the semi-finals and were due to meet the holders, Sweden, who were being led by the teenage prodigy that was Liselotte Neumann. At the age of 15 she had just won her National Championship by nine shots. The team sheets were handed in ahead of the match and Lotta’s name was nowhere to be seen. She had food poisoning and was unable to leave her bed. Ireland went on to win the match and beat England in the final. Rumours of sabotage remain unproven!
Sophie Gustafson overcame tremendous personal challenges to carve out a glittering professional career of 28 worldwide victories. One of the most popular players I know, Sophie has learned to manage her speech difficulties to a remarkable degree. She had a debilitating stutter that disappeared whenever she sang or swore, which she could do in fluent Anglo-Saxon! When she won the Women’s British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2000, she asked fellow professional Federica Dassu to make her winner’s speech for her. At her eighth Solheim Cup in 2011 in Ireland Sophie recorded an interview with the Golf Channel. It took her an hour to answer the questions for a three and a half minute interview. I was a helper to the European team that year and I was so proud of her. It was a real lump-in-the throat moment.
It must be 30 years since I first met Pia Nilsson who was no pushover in her playing days but became a world-class coach. Sweden stunned the golfing world in the 1990s when they appointed Pia as the national coach to both the women’s AND the men’s teams, amateur and professional. This was groundbreaking stuff. Five years on she confided to me that she was finishing the job because she had “so many other things I want to do”. I was astounded. If I thought Pia was near the pinnacle of the game she thought she was simply in the foothills.
Two decades on she and her partner Lynn Marriott are the founders of the world-renowned Vision 54 company, as much sought after in the business as the sporting world. A few years ago I asked her for her opinion on the differences in teaching women as opposed to men – a topic I was speaking on at several PGA conferences. Typically, she batted the question back telling me absolutely zilch. I challenged her about it the next time we met but she knew I’d learn more by having to come to my own conclusions than by listening to hers.
Pia remains the consummate educator and enabler, always learning and leading others to believe that there are no limits to human potential, in golf or life.
And now Sweden have their first male major champion. I couldn’t be happier. To all my Swedish friends and colleagues – get used to it. This’ll be the first of many. #FLOODGATES!