The Conversation with Annika Sorenstam, highest-ranked woman on The Dominant 20 list
Though she hasn't picked up a club professionally for a decade, Annika Sorenstam, 47, is the most dominant female athlete of the past 20 years (and No. 6 overall), according to ESPN The Magazine's Dominance Rankings. She's had 89 international tournament victories -- 72 on the LPGA, 10 majors -- was the first woman to break 60, and was the second to play in the PGA, in 2003, at the Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas. Male golfers protested her appearance at the event, but that did not deter Sorenstam, who recalls that day as the one when she became "Annika."
Sorenstam's guts transformed her from a stalwart citizen of golf to an icon, someone who showed every girl watching that equality was possible -- you just have to take a swing.
Allison Glock: Why golf?
Annika Sorenstam: Early on, I thought it was a slow sport for old people. [Laughs] I wasn't hooked on it right away. I grew up playing soccer, volleyball, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, like any Swede will do. Tennis. I worked hard on my tennis game. I wanted to be a professional. I practiced five days a week when I was really young.
AG: What happened?
AS: I had a weak backhand. [Laughs] I felt like every opponent could tell right away. And competing in tennis, I always needed a partner. In golf, I could just go out there and hit balls.
AG: So you did...
AS: Yeah I worked at it. I hit golf balls all day long. From sunrise to sunset, you'd see me on the range. I wouldn't say that I was a natural talent.
AG: Wait, you're the best woman golfer of all time...
AS: Maybe I was a natural talent in sports. I had good balance. But I did work really hard. Some people might call it boring or monotone, but it was discipline. My dad taught me early, there's no shortcut to success. I loved practicing my swing or my stroke or my short game. I enjoyed grinding away. Every day was different. New conditions, courses. If I had a good shot, I wanted to see if I could do it again, and if I had two in a row, can I do it three in a row? I was intrigued by how difficult it was. The complexity of the game caught my interest at the age of 12.
AG: You really nerded out on golf after that.
AS: I kept statistics starting in 1987! I created my own spreadsheet on the computer, and I got all the numbers. At the time, of course, my numbers were not so great. But I kept track of them, and I said, "OK, I'm averaging 77 strokes a season, can I get down to 76?" And the next year I would set another goal. I would dissect my game and plan accordingly.
AG: What else made you particularly dominant?
AS: I would say my biggest strength was I was extremely determined. I'm quite stubborn, and I can focus. I always, always asked the question: What can I do to be better? I would shoot 1 under par, then it would be, well, why can't I shoot 2 under? When I put my mind on something, I don't give up until I achieve it. I remember I quickly got down to what they call the official handicap. And all of a sudden I felt like I was a real golfer.
AG: How old were you then?
AS: At 14 years old, I went down to handicap 10. And then I was single digits. From 10 down to four and two and then scratch. I was about 16 when I was a scratch handicapper. Then I thought, like, wow, I'm playing this game.
AG: What do you think it was about your style that made you so effective?
AS: I could repeat my swing under pressure. And my body worked together [with my mind]. I had a good combination of feel and technique. Some players are very technical; some players are very feel. And I was able to be in between, if you know what I mean -- a little bit of each.
AG: A little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. Do you think you were born with that skill set or did you actively cultivate it?
AS: We had a big basement growing up, and my dad bought this mat and net, and every day after school, I would go down and hit balls.
AG: Golf balls? In your basement, in your house?
AS: Yes. It was the length of a badminton court, probably 15 feet high. I would stand there and hit ball after ball after ball, 20 yards or so. I got the emotion worked out. Then when the snow thawed, I'd go out on the golf course. And I could work more on my short game, my putting.
AG: During that time, developing your skills, did you have anyone you modeled yourself after?
AS: I mean, we're talking late '80s. We certainly didn't have TV in Sweden for women's golf. I mean, you can hardly find it today. So it was more reading Golf Magazine, seeing pictures. I read golf tips, and on occasion I would see the majors on TV. I admired the players from afar.
AG: What tips or ideas did you hope to take away?
AS: I asked myself, What if I had the power of Jack Nicklaus? And the charisma of Arnold Palmer? The same thing with Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Pat Bradley. I thought if I could take a little bit from everybody, I could make my own ideal golfer. That's how I wanted myself to be.
AG: Did you have a moment when you knew you were going to be dominant?
AS: No. I dreamed about winning, but I never really thought I could win on the LPGA. And when I did win in 1995, that gave me the confidence to think it might be a good decision to turn pro. But also to keep on working. I tell people I was on this train, and the train just kept going forward. I never thought I would be dominant. Even to this day, it's like, Am I in the Hall of Fame? Right now, we're in the middle of moving to another house, so we've been packing up. I stand in my office and pack my trophies, and the memories come back. And I realize that it was quite the run I had.
AG: In 2003, you played against the men on the PGA Tour at the Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas.
AS: If I look at my career, there is no doubt that playing with the men was a highlight for many reasons. That's when I became one word: Annika.
AG: How did it change your relationship with fans?
AS: I think they saw what kind of golfer I was. What kind of competitor. I remember winning the U.S. Open in '95, and at that time it was a little bit of a generation change. Nancy [Lopez] and some other hall-of-famers, they were on their way out, and all of a sudden this young Swede comes in. And I remember them saying, "This is the next Nancy Lopez!" And I thought, Well, that's going to be impossible. [Laughs] You can't fill her shoes. But I can be who I am.
AG: And you felt playing at Colonial eight years later showed who you were?
AS: It was more about what I stood for, the challenge of playing with the men and raising my game. The competitive aspects. That was more my personality than Nancy's. Does that make sense? I think people saw that I'm not afraid of a challenge, which Colonial certainly was. I wasn't afraid of pushing myself, and I wasn't afraid to put myself out there. On the contrary, I learned a lot about myself.
AG: At the time, you said it wasn't about beating men, it was about beating yourself, confronting your own fears and doubts. Is that how you still remember it?
AS: Yeah. It was a question of, am I good enough? Can I play against the very best? What do I need to learn from a personal perspective, a mental aspect? Physically I was playing probably at the peak of my career. But I wanted to see if I could I handle everything around it. So it really was a test. And I figured, if I can handle this, I can, hopefully, handle a lot of things in my life.
AG: How did that work out?
AS: [Laughs] I still live my life that way. I try to teach our children if you have a dream, don't be afraid you might fail or feel like you're not good enough. Don't ask, Why should I be the one? If you have that dream, you've got to go for it. And I had that opportunity at Colonial. I know that if I would've said no at that press conference when they asked me if I wanted to play with the men, I would regret that today. I would still ask the question, what would it have been like? Could I have handled it?
AG: It was such a circus at the time, with backlash from men and women....
AS: I mean, obviously I prepared as much as I possibly could. This wasn't my rookie year on tour. I'd been out there, I'd been winning golf tournaments and I practiced with the men. But I think opportunities don't come around often, and when they do, just don't be afraid. A lot of times you'd be surprised how you can stack up to different situations.
AG: What's the best advice anyone's ever given you?
AS: That golf is a game for life. It's a game that everybody can play, and it's very, very similar to life, meaning it's difficult, you have to adjust, it will test your patience. I think you learn a lot about a person's character when you're out with somebody on the golf course.
AG: How has your game evolved with age?
AS: It's ever-changing. You're young, you have power, you're fearless. And you get a little older, you start thinking, you start analyzing. Then obviously when you get much older you realize, I don't have the power anymore, it's a different game. But you can still play it. You just have to adjust to what you have. I think that's what I like about golf more than anything.
AG: Are you able to relax and have fun playing these days, or are you still competing with yourself?
AS: I am a very competitive person, so I don't play much now. I'm not so excited to go out because I'm not hitting the ball as far, I'm not hitting it as straight and as solid. I'm not a social golfer; I never have been. I've played with my parents a few times. I have a different life now, and I'm happy about that. Different priorities. I'm still very active in sports, but not so much on the golf. Creating opportunities for other young upcoming golfers is a priority of mine because I know what it's like to be in those shoes. To help others to fulfill their dreams. Because I feel like I lived mine.
AG: Do you try and pass along some of these lessons to your 8-year-old daughter?
AS: Good question. I hope she learns. I'm not sure she listens. [Laughs] The first few times I watched my kids compete in sports and I wanted them to do well. I had to bite my tongue. I was extremely driven, and you always think everybody is equally driven. I think you have to lead by example. Being committed to something is important. Sports in general is a very good basis for life. People always say it keeps you out of trouble, so why not?
AG: Did it keep you out of trouble?
AS: Yeah, I think so. I always tell my husband I was so dedicated to my sport, I don't know what that tells for the future because maybe I'll be bad later in my life. [Laughs]
AG: What made you retire?
AS: I decided to step away in 2008 when I realized that, honestly, I couldn't get any better. I had reached my peak. And I wasn't motivated anymore. It wasn't about the wins, it wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the accolades, it was -- I've reached my peak. I can't push myself anymore. Maybe it's time to do something else.
I think when you step away, that's when those things come back at you and you realize the accolades. They probably mean more to me now than they did then. Because I was so focused, so driven. We'd finish on a Sunday, and Monday it's back to the range, boom, what are we working on, OK, we're doing this. I never really smelled the roses along the way. Being a mom, you learn what things are important. Maturing is part of the deal. So I look at my career a bit more now and go, Wow, that was pretty cool.
AG: You didn't enjoy your success at the time?
AS: If I look back and ask is there something I would've done differently, maybe that's what I would have done. But then I don't know if I would've been so focused. There's a fine line. Just enjoy it? Or keep on working? Everybody has their own style. Other people might have been happy with the win. I would say, "You know what, I didn't hit every green, I didn't hit every fairway." But it doesn't mean I wasn't happy.
AG: Are you finally allowing yourself to feel the significance of your achievements?
AS: I think so, yeah. I'm not living the hectic tournament life anymore. It's not like I miss it or anything. It's more, it warms my heart to think of it. I'm proud of what I did, because I pushed myself. And that was one of the things I said when I joined the tour: I want to make sure that I give 100 percent so when I leave I have not left any stones unturned. I feel like I gave it absolutely everything I had. So there's this peace of mind that I gave it all.