European captain Annika Sorenstam brings a lifetime of excellence to Solheim Cup
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- When the national anthems are played Thursday as part of the opening ceremonies for the 15th Solheim Cup, European captain Annika Sorenstam will pay particular attention to two songs: those honoring where she was born, Sweden, and where she lives, the United States.
"Probably the first captain to have dual citizenship," says Sorenstam, who became a U.S. citizen in 2006. "It's a different scenario, no doubt. I'm very thankful for the support I have received throughout the years here. I figured that this is my home; it's where I want to be, and I see myself raising my family here. I just felt it was the right thing to do."
But before she possessed two passports, Sorenstam was known around the world by one name, her first. When it comes to the talent and impact of sports champions, that can be as good a measurement as victories and prize money.
Michael. Martina. LeBron. Serena. Tiger. Annika.
You see namesakes here and there, younger golfers whose parents admired the Swede when she was tearing up the LPGA. There were two such players in last month's U.S. Girls' Junior, Annika Borrelli of California and Annika Cedo of the Philippines.
"Yes, there's quite a bit of pressure," Cedo told USGA.org. "It's a very high standard."
A career of winning
This week Sorenstam will be gripping a walkie-talkie instead of the 4-wood with which she split the fairway on her first hole at Colonial, testing herself against the men with the world watching in 2003.
Sorenstam's captaincy, though, after serving three times as an assistant for Europe, offers a refresher course in her competitive excellence. When Sorenstam retired after the 2008 season at age 38, she had 72 career LPGA victories, third all-time behind Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). The career victory total combined for the 24 players competing this weekend at Des Moines Golf and Country Club is 90.
"Annika did it week in and week out," says American captain Juli Inkster, a 31-time LPGA winner. "It's so hard to keep up that consistency, but she managed that. She was a great ball striker. When she putted decent, she won. She was of those once-in-a-lifetime players."
After attending the University of Arizona for two years, Sorenstam turned pro in 1992 and established herself as a player to watch by becoming LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1994. The next season, the U.S. Women's Open was one of three victories en route to being the LPGA Player of the Year, an honor she would win a record eight times. The way she racked up victories in bunches -- 48 wins between 2000 and 2005 -- recalled how Wright dominated the LPGA in the 1960s.
At her zenith, in 2002, Sorenstam won 11 of 23 starts and finished in the top 10 another nine times, results that made it hard to believe that she was so shy as a junior golfer and would sabotage her score to avoid having to give a victory speech.
"She was very precise and aggressive in her manner of play," says American Cristie Kerr, who joined the LPGA in 1997. "She didn't get very emotional. When her name was on the leaderboard, you knew she was going to have a chance. So she was very formidable."
During the period before golfers from Asia matriculated to the LPGA in large numbers, Sorenstam became the face of women's golf. She did what no female had ever done (shoot a 59 at the 2001 Standard Register Ping) and what hadn't been done in a long time (play in a PGA Tour event, the 2003 Bank of America Colonial, as the first woman to compete in an official men's tournament since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945).
Sorenstam approached that heavily hyped appearance in Fort Worth -- cheered by many, jeered by a few -- with characteristic dedication and precision. Tiger Woods, for one, had been worried that if Sorenstam shot high scores and was out of her element, it would set back women's golf. His fears were unfounded, though, as the Swede calmed her nerves to shoot 71-74, a very credible performance under extreme pressure that she said helped the rest of her career.
Most of the European players that Sorenstam, now 46, is leading are too young to have competed against her, the exceptions being Karine Icher, 38, and Catriona Matthew, 47. Matthew, one of Sorenstam's assistant captains, is a late addition to the team after replacing Suzann Pettersen, who sustained a back injury over the weekend in Norway. Matthew has played in eight Solheim Cups, four with Sorenstam.
"It is difficult for me to say what made her great because there was no women's golf on TV in Germany when she was No. 1," says 28-year-old European team member Caroline Masson of her captain. "From getting to know her, it is that determination to get what she wants. It's a very straight line. It's kind of simple, but a powerful kind of simple."
Although Sorenstam's winning style of play -- hitting lots of fairways and greens and being known for form not flair, not unlike another superb ball striker, Ben Hogan -- was occasionally characterized as robotic, the Solheim Cup has brought out her emotions. She was tearful after her American opponents asked her to replay a shot after chipping in during the 2000 matches in Scotland because she had played out of turn. Sorenstam was visibly disappointed after the concession controversy that marred the 2015 matches in Germany.
"These controversies happen," Sorenstam says. "They're not at all personal, they just come up. Emotions run high. The Solheim Cup resembles other team sports when a game goes down to the final minutes. To see how much it means to players and the pride they have -- that's not something you can fabricate. It's true. It's authentic. Sometimes they play better than they have ever played. It's the atmosphere, the environment, something in the stage that brings out the best in the players."
Leading by example
Sorenstam is the most decorated player to captain a Solheim Cup since Whitworth led the U.S. in 1990 and 1992, winning the first and losing the second. Excellence as a player is no guarantee of success as a captain. The first American Ryder Cup team that Jack Nicklaus captained, in 1983, won narrowly, but his second, in 1987, lost, even though the event was played at Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
Mel Reid, the 29-year-old Englishwoman playing in her third Solheim Cup, has no doubt Sorenstam is a plus. "I'd make her the best female golfer there's ever been," Reid says. "The kind of experience she can bring to our team is kind of like a golden ticket, especially with four rookies on the team. With the big crowds expected, I think an experienced voice will really help, and I see her calm control as a big help coping with that."
Masson says simply, "Whatever we face, she's seen already."
The kind of experience she can bring to our team is kind of like a golden ticket, especially with four rookies on the team. With the big crowds expected, I think an experienced voice will really help, and I see her calm control as a big help coping with that.Mel Reid on Annika Sorenstam
Asked recently about the differences in how the respective 2017 captains are handling the task, Inkster laughed, aware she is much less analytical than Sorenstam.
"She'll be great, she'll be very organized," Inkster says. "Every rock will be tuned over, and she'll have them ready. My team has got to know that. They can't come out flat. They have to come out barreling away because that's the way the Europeans will play."
Sorenstam has relied on 15th Club, a London-based company of golf professionals, data experts and software engineers, for meaningful performance analysis of her players. "I love numbers, and that's been part of my career from the beginning," Sorenstam says. "I feel like it's just another tool, to confirm a thought or explain something in more detail. I'm not basing every decision on numbers, but it helps."
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, who captained the U.S. to Solheim Cup victories in 1996 and 1998 and is now a Golf Channel analyst, believes Sorenstam would be well served to let her instincts come to the fore.
"Sometimes you really have to just go with your gut feeling," Rankin says. "She needs to let that come through, which maybe she can, but I feel like even as a great player she did everything she could to keep emotion out of it."
A decade removed from those days of competing with blinders on, Sorenstam has evolved into a wife, mother and businesswoman who frequently shares details of her life with husband Mike McGee and their children on social media. Daughter Ava, a third-grader, is a budding equestrian. Son Will, a first-grader, plays soccer. Mike -- whose father, Jerry, played on the PGA Tour -- loves the Pittsburgh Steelers. Annika cooks lovely, healthy meals. The family loves to vacation at Lake Tahoe.
"A lot of people saw me from far away," Sorenstam says. "Time flies by. One my goals is for the players to get to know me as a person. Right now, I'm a mother. I want them to get to know me from that side."
Mission accomplished, believes Reid. "When I first met her she had this aura and [was] intimidating," Reid said. "She's now just Annika, which I think is exactly how she would like it."
Sorenstam's fellow Swede Mia Landegren, who played in the U.S. Women's Amateur last week, has met her idol and came away impressed.
"She's very cool," says Landegren, who is on the women's golf team at Alabama. "She's very low-key, just a down-to-earth person, very easy to talk to."
Georgia Hall, one of the rookies who Sorenstam will be guiding, believes the captain's blend of traits will serve her well. "She's the best woman golfer who has ever been in my opinion," Hall says. "That along will make her an inspirational captain. What stands out, though, is that she cares for each one of us; we've seen her make the effort to treat us differently. She concentrates on details and once she does, she's determined to make it perfect."
Whether or not the Europeans are celebrating on Sunday night, one thing is certain: Their captain will have done her best to hit all the right notes.
Information from Matt Cooper was included in this report.