LPGA's Madelene Sagstrom on learning to love herself after childhood sexual abuse

When LPGA Tour player Madelene Sagstrom decided to go public with her story of childhood sexual abuse in February, she wanted to make an impact on other people's lives. She didn't realize that she'd also be empowering herself through the process. Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images

On Feb. 22, LPGA Tour player Madelene Sagstrom shared her story of childhood sexual abuse publicly as part of the LPGA's Drive On campaign dedicated to celebrating the hard work, focus and tenacity of the women on tour. Before attempting to defend her solo title at the Gainbridge LPGA, the 28-year-old Swedish golfer publicly opened up about the sexual abuse that she suffered at the age of 7 and that she buried deep for 16 years. In 2016, Sagstrom first revealed her abuse to her mentor Robert Karlsson, an 11-time European Tour winner and former Ryder Cup player, before telling her parents. As Sagstrom prepares to compete in her fifth U.S. Women's Open this week at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, she explains in her own words how she finds strength in talking about her story, why she still struggles with her mental health and what it means to love herself.


I don't know what my life would've looked like if I didn't have golf. I consider golf my savior. The golf course was the only place where I felt that I could be somewhat of myself. Only somewhat though -- I was aware of that.

It wasn't until 2016, as a Symetra Tour rookie, when I finally opened up to my mentor, Robert Karlsson, about my childhood sexual abuse, that I really understood the missing pieces. I remember the conversation with Robert so vividly. Prior to that, Robert wanted me to dig deep and better understand why I was having trouble controlling my emotions on the golf course. I don't think he realized what he was about to uncover. I don't think I realized what I was about to uncover.

I broke down to Robert that night in a hotel room in Greenwood, South Carolina. I told him about how at the age of 7, I was sexually abused by a family friend in the Swedish countryside, about an hour outside of Stockholm. I explained how I managed to return home afterward and act like nothing ever happened. Crying over how all those years I hated myself. I despised my body. I hurt myself mentally and physically. I didn't know what was wrong with me. That secret haunted me. It haunted me until I could no longer escape it. And the pain showed up in every aspect of my life -- especially on the golf course.

As soon as I said those words, "I was sexually abused as a child," it felt like a weight was lifted. I woke up the next morning, and I remember thinking, "I've never felt so free in my entire life." That freedom felt like it happened overnight, but the next part would be more difficult. I needed to learn how to separate the person with the golfer. I needed to heal the person. I needed to love the person. And I needed to stay in that space of healing and loving the person, so that I could discover the best version of the golfer.

On the course, those steps towards healing and loving myself started showing up. But I was no longer viewing myself as just Madelene, the golfer. I was viewing myself as Madelene, the person. And it was actually apparent on the golf course. After I talked to Robert, I won three times on the Symetra Tour that rookie season. Setting a record for single-season earnings, I finished in the top 5 in 11 of my 15 starts.

For years, it was just Robert and me that truly knew the extent of what I was going through. My parents found out about the sexual abuse shortly after I told Robert, after he suggested I write it all out and send them a voice recording that night in the hotel room and just explain what happened at the age of 7. Ever since that moment in 2016, my family has been extremely supportive and loving. It's been extremely hard for all of us to come to terms with what happened, but we are all supporting each other the best we can.

Throughout this journey of opening up to others, I realize that when you decide to share your story with someone, you are hoping they acknowledge what you are saying. But you don't realize that they might have to acknowledge their own stuff in that process. And there's not always a willingness there.

With Robert, there was always a willingness. And I'm forever grateful for that. I'm also grateful for my boyfriend, Jack Clarke. He's been by my side since 2018, since we met at a tournament that he was caddying at for another LPGA player, and I told him early in the relationship about what happened to me. I wanted to put it all out there. For so long, I hid it. And now, I wanted to make sure that there weren't any secrets. I wanted Jack to know that he could stay or go, but I needed to put all the cards on the table.

If it wasn't for Robert and Jack, I wouldn't have gone public with my story this year. My story was out there, but it wasn't really that public -- especially on this scale. I had posted about it on my Facebook page four years ago, but no one seemed to realize or pay attention. It didn't get any media attention. And I was OK with that. Then, right before the pandemic started in the spring of 2020, the LPGA approached me about sharing my story for the Drive On video series. It was over one year in the making. And during that process, Robert and Jack were by my side the entire time. I needed them, especially Jack.

BEFORE MY STORY went public at the end of February, I questioned it all.

For more than a year, I worked closely with the LPGA to make sure I was making the right decision. During this time, they made sure that I had all the resources to tell this story. I still have never gone through therapy, but I know that those options are always available to me when I'm ready. The LPGA became a huge part of my support system.

It was still very scary to even consider going public. I knew that I would be labeled in a way. If you googled my name, this story of childhood sexual abuse would appear. I'm so grateful for the LPGA and the care they displayed with my story. We had many moments where we were ready to shut it all down just because it was becoming too much.

And in those moments, I kept asking myself, "Why are you doing this? Why do you want to tell your story?" I chose to tell my story in this capacity because I wanted to be that voice for somebody who doesn't want to speak. I wanted to be that voice that I didn't have all throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I wanted to break the stigma. I wanted to create a safe space for others.

This wasn't about golf anymore. Golf provided me the platform. But this was about being a human.

Athletes are often misunderstood by fans and bystanders.

When I would get angry on the golf course, people would be like, "Why is she so angry? What is she doing?" And they just cared about that bogey or double-bogey on the scorecard. The missed cuts. The wins. The losses. They didn't care about Madelene the person.

I struggle with the idea that athletes become dehumanized in a sense. And it really affects our mental health. We become objects. There's an expectation of perfection. People expect so much out of you. And those expectations are just so rarely attainable. It's hard because when you don't live up to those expectations, it hits you hard. You lose a sense of self-worth.

The closer I got to telling my story publicly, the more I recognized how important it was to share my philosophy that I've learned over the years: To show people that yes, I'm a golfer and a professional athlete, but I'm a human first. I have issues. I have a story. I'm more than my sport.

Days before the LPGA published my story, I questioned myself again. And that's when Jack stepped in and reminded me that I have a platform to make change. He said, "You want to tell your story to help others. That's what you believe in." He encouraged me to keep going, although those few days felt like a roller coaster. But he kept reminding me that I have a chance to make people feel less alone in what they're going through. I'm choosing to use my platform to help others. And above all else, I'm using my platform to help myself. I'm stepping into a new identity. And that was important for me to understand.

GOING PUBLIC WITH my story wasn't like one and done. It wasn't as easy as just putting it out there and calling it a day. Mentally, I was ready to make an impact. I knew I was going to make an impact. But I think I'm still figuring it all out. The hours, days, weeks, months since that morning in late February, when the story went live, haven't been easy.

Early in the morning on February 22, I had to post the LPGA Drive On video on my Instagram and Twitter accounts. I posted it, and then I put my phone away. I fled from my phone without even really thinking about it. And I went straight to hit golf balls. For two hours, I hit golf balls. And I just stood there, hitting one ball after the other. I thought, "You're really escaping this right now. You don't even want to deal with it yet." But I also told myself, "It's out there now. There's no going back. You have to face it."

Leading into the Gainbridge LPGA tournament that week, I didn't really know how I'd process all of this. A huge part of going public with this story was to help others. And within minutes, my inbox and comments sections were flooded with people reaching out and sharing their own stories. The response was hugely positive, and it continues to be positive. I've ignored any negativity that I might receive on social media.

And now that three months have passed and nine tournaments [including the Bank of Hope Match-Play], I still don't fully know how to process it. It might not be on the top of everyone's mind in the media and golf world still, but it's still on the top of my mind. I take it day by day. I still haven't been to therapy, and I know that I should go one day. I've worked closely with mental coaches. I've worked closely with Robert, who's been a rock in my life since telling him. I rely on my entire support system. On Jack. On my parents. On Jack's parents. On Robert. On the LPGA.

I've tried to stay present in all of this. There have been heavy days where it's too much. I want to be present, but I'm still coming to terms with my own story. On those heavy days, I try to take a moment to reflect and think about how far I've come. And I feel empowered. I'm so empowered by my own growth, even if I'm not always aware of it. I feel very strong in my newfound purpose and mission. I'm not just here to win tournaments and make cuts. I'm here to help others.

My game might not be where I want it to be right now, but I'm getting closer. To think about the last few months, I can't help but feel proud of myself. Mentally, I'm getting closer. Physically, I'm getting closer. You might see a bad shot on the course, but I try to see the person who is trying to make a real difference. My game will get to where it needs to be. My mind will also get to where it needs to be.

I struggle every day. I don't want to pretend that I don't struggle, despite my sense of empowerment. There's never going to be an end date to coming to terms with what happened to me when I was 7. But I can learn how to deal with those dark days. I can also choose to take any power back that my predator had over me. That's why I didn't want any of this to be about him. It's about me. It's my story.

Recently, I talked to my mental coach about the status of my golf game. I've had 4 missed cuts out of the 9 tournaments I've competed in since going public. In that conversation, I caught myself explaining how I'm never going to be "done" with the person, the little girl who was abused in Sweden. The person behind all of this will never be out of the picture. I am still that person. But there's been a huge shift in who I am on-and-off the golf course.

I know that my performance on the course doesn't define who I am as a person. In the past, I couldn't separate the golfer from the person. I'm learning to finally make that separation. If I shoot an 85, I'm going to be OK. It's going to suck, but I will survive it. I've survived up until this point.

Golf is my savior.

It saved me from a secret. It saved me from trauma. It gave me a community -- a support system. It allowed me to tell my story and use my platform. Regardless of if I win another tournament again, I know that golf has allowed me to have a platform in the first place. I will always turn to golf when I need it the most. I love Madelene the golfer, but I now love Madelene the person more.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.