HARTFORD, Conn. – New England golf fans, especially in Connecticut, had to be delighted and excited about Annika Sorenstam’s declaration on the eve of playing on the LPGA Tour for the first time in nearly 13 years.
For months, the World Golf Hall of Fame who hadn’t played in a LPGA event for 4,472 days before teeing it up in Gainbridge LPGA on her home course for the last 21 years, Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, Fla., didn’t commit to whether she would play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield on July 29-Aug. 1.
Sorenstam had concerns that the major championship would cause problems with her duties in the ceremonial role of president of the International Golf Federation, which oversees Olympic golf in Japan. The Olympics in Tokyo begin four days after the LPGA’s visit to Connecticut, and though she had the support of IGF executive director Antony Scanlon, she still wondered there would be too many oars in the water at one time.
But that speculation ended when she said the Gainbridge tournament would be a warmup for Brooklawn Country Club, which will be hosting its fifth major championship for men, women and juniors. Now, though, she’s just trying to enjoy herself, reunite with some players and caddies that she knew during her LPGA Tour playing days and get to know some of the younger competitors, many of whom are half her age.
Next week, Sorenstam returns to being a wife, mother and businesswoman.
“This is not a comeback,” said Sorenstam, who turned 50 on Oct. 9. “It’s an appearance, and I’m just thrilled about that, but I’m in a different place in my life.”
Sorenstam was a dominant player in the female mode of close friend Tiger Woods before she unexpectedly retired at 37 in 2008 coming off consecutive victories of what turned out to be the last of her 72 victories, including 10 majors, on the LPGA Tour.
Sorenstam’s youngest child, 9-year-old Will, has the golf bug, and that brings her out to the course more often. She also played with her father in the PNC Championship for parents and offspring the last two years, including in December when Woods made his tournament debut with 11-year-old son Charlie Sorenstam. Diamond Resorts supports Sorenstam’s foundation, so she played in the celebrity division of the LPGA Tour season opener, the Tournament of Champions, last month in Orlando.
When the Gainbridge LPGA moved from South Florida to Lake Nona, Sorenstam already was contemplating a return to competition at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
“I figured I just need some tournament rounds,” said Sorenstam, who’s playing the first two rounds this week with fellow Swedes Anna Nordqvist and Madelene Sagstrom. “I need some experience back inside the ropes and focusing on 18 holes, making putts, no mulligans and no gimmes.”
This week is a major treat for players who only know Sorenstam for her Hall of Fame career. She has the career Grand Slam and became known on a first-name basis in golf when she competed against the men in 2003 at Colonial, the first woman in 45 years to play on the PGA Tour. That was largely due to longtime Connecticut resident Suzy Whaley winning the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship to qualify for the 2003 Greater Hartford Open at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
“I used to think about playing against the guys that I knew on the PGA Tour, especially Tiger, but that usually lasted about 10 seconds,” Sorenstam joked during a teleconference call two months before her Colonial appearance. “But when Suzy Whaley qualified for the tournament in Connecticut, I decided to give it a shot and accept the sponsors’ exemption.”
Sorenstam and Whaley, who became the first female to be elected an officer in the PGA of America in 2006, are two of only five women to play in a PGA Tour event. This week, Sorenstam is proud that 40 players in the 120-player field know her for the Annika Academy that supports amateur golf around the world. They all played her tournaments and now get to compete against her, at least for one week.
“I’ve seen many of these young players grow up,” Sorenstam said.
One of them is Gabriela Ruffels, a former U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who played in the Annika Intercollegiate when she was at Southern California.
“She’s the greatest of all time, and it’s really cool to see her walking around,” Ruffels said. “I saw her on the range a couple days ago. I was kind of star-struck, to be honest.”
Sorenstam knows better than to have any expectations, high or low, because she cannot simply flip the switch to decades ago. She had a swing that was as repeatable as any, with that famous early head turn, that it came from relentless work when golf was her priority.
“Shooting around par I think will be a good thing for me,” said Sorenstam, the only player to shoot 59 on the LPGA Tour. “I’m going to obviously do the best I can. I think the biggest difference nowadays is I’m just not as consistent as I was. Nowadays I’m good for 14 holes, and I don’t know what’s coming the other four. It’s a little more surprise on the course.”
Sorenstam and husband Mike McGee, the son of 1979 Greater Hartford Open champion Jerry McGee, have a house near the 16th tee at Lake Nona, and she jokes that it’s the only part of the course she knows. The members at Lake Nona mostly see her at pickleball or in the clubhouse for Easter brunch or a Thanksgiving feast.
But for this week, it’s about golf at the highest level. Lake Nona, home to several PGA and LPGA players, hosted the Solheim Cup in 1990 and previously had the Tavistock Cup matches between tour members from Lake Nona and Isleworth, where Woods lived before he moved to Jupiter, Fla.
“If it wasn’t Lake Nona, I wouldn’t be here,” Sorenstam said. “The LPGA has been a huge part in my life, in my heart and wonderful memories. But that’s not why I’m here, to create more.”
The gallery will be limited to Lake Nona members, many who have not seen their longtime neighbor play in an LPGA event.
“They haven’t really seen me play,” Sorenstam said. “When I was living here and I was competing, I always traveled around the world. For them, I’m just a good friend. Some of them hardly knew I was a golfer, so it’s going to be fun to be here.”
Some fans in New England will be able to see Annika live in July.