Tour and News

Four years after retiring, Annika Sorenstam is gunning to become a super-brand

Photo: Ben Van Hook

Today Sorenstam, 42, is all about Annika -- as in her burgeoning brand, “Annika.”

Annika Sorenstam rose at 5:45 a.m. on a recent Tuesday to tape a Morning Drive spot at the Golf Channel’s Orlando studios. From there, she zipped over to Publix to speed-shop for dinner, before heading straight to her second-floor office suite outside the gates of Lake Nona Golf & Country Club for a 9 a.m. magazine interview and photo shoot. The afternoon called for a lunch date with guests of her teaching academy, followed by a play date at home with her two kids, Ava, 3, and Will, 2. Three days later, she’d be in Nashville for a First Tee conference and then on the West Coast for golf outings with one of her corporate partners. Sorenstam, retired? From competitive golf maybe, but not much else. Four-plus years after hanging up her spikes with 10 major wins and 72 LPGA titles, the 42-year-old Swede is all about Annika—as in her burgeoning brand, “Annika.” Hawking the likes of golf instruction, course-design services, wine, clothing and even financial planning, Sorenstam is once again playing against the guys, this time as a hard-charging competitor to such macho moguls as Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. In a candid and wide-ranging interview, Sorenstam discussed her new world, how she might fare in an LPGA event today, and the curious case of Michelle Wie.

Some retirement. You sound busier than you were as a player.
Well, I’m busier in a sense because I’m trying to juggle everything, between working and being a mom. Before it was like, work out, practice, compete, rest. Those were the four things that I had to do. Now it’s like four things in one day. There are so many moving parts. But my hours are very different, and if I travel, it’s for a day or two, not like a whole week. And I try to be on a lot of red-eyes so I can get home to be there for the kids in the morning. We drop anything for them.

Do you compare yourself to other star golfers turned business moguls?
I don’t compare myself to them, but I do admire them. Greg Norman’s been very successful. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player. But there’s really no women [doing what I’m doing]—golfers or other athletes. Billy Jean King has been very successful with her philanthropy, her Women’s Sports Foundation. Chris Evert has her tennis academy, but that’s kind of where it ends. It’s hard work. You come from thinking you’ve got it on the golf course, from being the best, and then you jump into this world. It’s very humbling.

Has running a business filled your competitive void?
I don’t have a golf void. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, I wish I had some time to play.” I’ve found other things to do.

It’s hard to believe you could just shut it down near your prime and not miss the competition.
I know, but I don’t—not at all. Maybe that’s strange to some. I spoke to Jack Nicklaus about this, and he has no desire to play. But then you take Arnold Palmer, and he plays every day. I spoke to [tennis great Andre] Agassi—he plays a little now, but after he retired he didn’t want to play for a very long time. I fulfilled my dreams and did what I wanted to achieve. There was nothing else that would push me.

You’ve never been one to embrace your celebrity. How do you reconcile that with having your name and face on a company?
I know it’s my name and everything—it’s me, but it’s not me. It’s my values, what I stand for, my knowledge, my passion. But I don’t feel like it’s me standing in the limelight and showing off, which is what I don’t necessarily enjoy. But I do believe in what I have and that our products are valuable and can enhance somebody’s life.

You’ve said that you were so shy as a kid that you’d intentionally blow leads to avoid having to give victory speeches. Would you literally, say, yank a three-footer on the final hole?
Well, maybe a little earlier than that, because it would have been so obvious on 18. So probably on 16 or 17. Yeah, I was terrified. I didn’t raise my hand at school either. I was afraid of giving the wrong answer and having everyone look at me and laugh. I was very shy. I always said I wanted to let my clubs do the talking, but then once you play well you have to say something. That’s when I really sat down and thought, hey, this is what I want to achieve. A little light went off and I said, “If I’m going to play well, I can’t have this take away from my ability.” Either you accept that or you don’t.

It was 10 years ago this month that you played against the men at the Colonial. [Sorenstam shot 71-74 and missed the cut by four strokes.] Where does that week rank among your career achievements?
It was a short moment, but when I look back at my career, it was a defining moment and the highlight of my career, there’s no doubt. I’m so glad I did it. I can look back at it and talk to my little girl especially about achieving your dreams and following your dreams in whatever world there is. And to my son, I will tell him, “Get used to it. There will be girls and ladies trying to achieve big things.”

It was your career highlight? It outranks each of your 10 major titles?
It’s not like the Colonial is here [raises her hand above her head] and the U.S. Open here [lowers her other hand toward the ground], but that was the highlight because it helped me win majors. I had won some before, but I had one of my best years after that. Colonial was more about me, and learning about me and my goals, testing myself under pressure, and all of that. That to me was so much more powerful than putting a score together in a regular event.

Your caddie Terry McNamara said that minutes before you teed off, you were pale as a ghost.
Yeah, I was very nervous, because there was no backing out. Not that I was going to pack my bag and go. The moment was there. When you plan for something, it’s coming, you’re excited, and then it’s there, and you think, “Am I ready? How will I handle this?” I knew I could play, but it was such a different environment than I was used to. It was the biggest of the biggest. Take the U.S. Open times five.

Not everyone was behind you. Vijay Singh said, “I hope she misses the cut. Why? Because she doesn’t belong out here.” What was your reaction when you heard that?
Well, I was expecting it from some people.

But from such a prominent player?
Yeah, I don’t see why he would even worry about someone like me. I think he would have bigger things to worry about. But that’s his life and his view on things. He comes from a place where women are not as equal maybe. I grew up in Sweden, which is a very neutral country. It’s more acceptable that women have a career.

Michelle Wie subsequently made several starts on the PGA Tour. Do you think that devalued your appearance at the Colonial?
I don’t think it mattered to my career, but I don’t think it helped her career. I think we see some of it today. I think she jumped in way too deep, and I think it had some tough consequences for her. I walked away with an amazing experience. I don’t necessarily think she did.

Has she ever come to you for advice?
No.

A couple of years ago you criticized Wie, who was then an undergrad at Stanford, for focusing too much on her education and not enough on golf. Do you stand by that opinion?
I never criticized her for getting an education. I said that I think it’s funny for her to go to Stanford when she’s at the peak of her career. I mean she’s almost gone backwards. She played more when she was younger and less when she’s older. Getting a degree from Stanford is something I applaud her for, but it’s funny to not play any of the high-school stuff and play against the men, and then she gets her [LPGA] card and she plays less than she did before. I thought that was strange.

She’s only 24. Couldn’t she still become the best player in the world?
She has a long way to go, let’s put it that way. There was a time when the LPGA really needed her. I thought she had a lot to bring to the table. Now she’s one out of many.

Do you feel it was her obligation to help promote and market the LPGA?
She didn’t want it early on. It was more about [playing against] the men.

Either she didn’t want it, or her parents or advisers didn’t.
Whoever—her team. I don’t know. I don’t know them. I don’t talk to them. What I see now is that the talent that we all thought would be there is not there.

 

You toyed with a belly putter late in your career. Where do you come down on the anchoring ban?
I’m okay with it, but as I’ve said all along, I think we have bigger issues to deal with. This game needs to grow and somebody anchoring a putter is not a big deal. Pace of play to me is the biggest issue; professionals should not be making the turn in three hours. Then you have cost and access and difficulty. If we’re going to speed up the game then people need to make putts, and if they need to anchor to make putts, then let them anchor. If you speed up play, you have more fun. That’s what it’s all about.

So the USGA picked the wrong fight?
I was so surprised with the USGA from the beginning. If you’re going to implement [the ban], implement it. You’ve got a 90-day comment period, and then four years until it becomes effective. This whole thing is funny. Either you approve or you don’t approve.

Let’s say you’re LPGA commissioner for a day. What’s first on your agenda?
Probably nothing that Mike Whan isn’t already doing. I think we need to be on TV more. You need to be seen, to be heard and to be recognized. That’s what I would push for—more exposure. The players have a lot of wonderful stories. They can play; it’s just not out there to see. It’s on either early in the morning or late at night.

It’s a catch-22. You can’t interest viewers without TV time, but you can’t get TV time without interest.
And it’s a cost issue, too. When the PGA Tour signed a big deal with the networks, they didn’t pay for it, they got paid. We pay for everything. It’s $500,000 to $1 million per event. That could go to the women, or back to charity, but it goes back to the networks. It’s tough. Look at the Golf Channel—I’ve told them many times before, “Talk more women.” But even when I go in there I talk more men.

That imbalance must have been frustrating to you, especially when you were making history in your prime.
That’s easy for me to say now. Before if you asked me, I’d have been whining for myself; now I’m whining for today’s players. Yeah, there’s no doubt. Take the rivalries today—Rory and Tiger? Tiger deserves [the attention], but Rory’s just starting. There’s no rivalry yet. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and Arnold Palmer—that was a rivalry. Karrie Webb and myself and Se Ri Pak—that was a rivalry. That was years of competition. My point is the PGA Tour is what everybody talks about. When their season starts in January, the women are starting overseas. We don’t even know where they are or when they’re playing.

You and Tiger were friends and frequent practice partners at ?Isleworth before his sex scandal broke. Is it true you haven’t seen or spoken to him since?
I saw him at one event since, but yes, we’ve lost touch.

Were the revelations of his personal life a surprise to you?
Yeah, I had no idea.

You’re friendly with his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren. How’s she doing?
She’s doing pretty well. It’s just an awkward situation for everybody when you’re friends with both of them. But, you know, it was at a time in my career when I was moving away [from the game], so I wasn’t practicing as much [with Woods] anyway.

One of the keys to your success was your relentless devotion to working out. What motivated you?
I’d always been an athlete, but I wasn’t strong everywhere. I wanted to get strong and I wanted to build muscle and be able to create some clubhead speed so I could get some power and some distance. We’d get to a point where we overloaded the muscles. I’d get to the sixth rep, it was hard; seven was really hard; and eight, it might take a little push [from her trainer].

It worked. You picked up 20 yards in driving distance in the early 2000s.
Yeah, I had a clubhead speed of 105 [mph]. The first few times at the Callaway [test] center, I was at 92.

As you bulked up, there were whispers that you were taking performance-enhancing drugs. Did you ever feel the need to respond to those rumors?
I heard about them, but nobody ever confronted me. I knew what [my secret] was—it was hard work. I said, “You work out with me five times a week and see how you go, see if you can last.” That was also in a time when fitness wasn’t as big in the women’s game. I was one of the first, and therefore I was able to take advantage of it. Even today, a lot of the women work out but they don’t necessarily lift weights.

So the suspicions didn’t offend you?
No, I wasn’t offended. I would say it’s a compliment, because [my regimen] was working.

Have you ever seen evidence of PEDs in the women’s game?
No, never. I was actually on the tour’s drug committee. I was one of the player representatives. I’m all for [testing]. Especially when you work hard, you don’t want anyone else to have an advantage that they don’t deserve. However, it’s very complicated. I still don’t understand half of it.

Half of what?
Well, what’s out there—what you should take and not take. All I know is, you’d have a cold and you’d call the LPGA doctor to see if you could take whatever, and they’d say yes or no.

That must have been unsettling.
I was extremely worried, yes. I was very, very picky about what I took. I wasn’t going to have thousands of hours in the gym be jeopardized. But as far as our policy goes, nobody’s been caught doing anything.

You were drug tested after your last LPGA round, at the 2008 ADT Championship. That was an awkward way to go out.
Yeah, I admit I was not happy about that, because it ruined the moment. Fans were cheering and saying goodbye and I wanted to be out there to soak it up. But instead I had to go into the trailer. By the time I came back 45 minutes later, it’s like someone had put a needle in the balloon. And I had been tested a few weeks before that. And I’m done [with my career], so what’s the point?

Michael Jordan recently told ESPN The Magazine, “I’d give up everything to go back and play the game of basketball.” When asked how he replaces it, he said, “You don’t. You learn to live with it.” You don’t feel that way about golf?
Well, I’m lucky to be in a sport where if I felt that way, I could come back. I don’t have to go back to tour school. I’ve got my criteria, and could still do that if I wanted. But I don’t have the desire. On the contrary, I’m very happy where I am.

So you could never see yourself returning to play?
No.

If you played an LPGA event tomorrow, do you think you could win it?
If you gave me clubs right now and I flew to Thailand tomorrow and played, no, I don’t think I could win. But I played in the Pebble Beach Callaway Invitational [an unofficial event] in December and I was the lowest female. Juli Inkster was there and some others. I was pretty proud. I finished under par.

What if you had a few months to practice? Could you win again?

I don’t know. They’re so good. The reason I don’t play so well now is because I don’t practice. I’m about results. I’m a perfectionist. I know what it’s like to play at the top, and to do that you have to work very, very hard, every day. But if I had the motivation? I don’t know. I’m 42 now, and they’re winning at the age of 15. [Laughs] And it’s not like I look back and say, “I wish I would have won that tournament,” or “I wish I would have won another major.” I’m very, very content.
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