This article originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Golf is a lonely game except at the Ryder Cup. There every player has 11 teammates and a captain rooting for him, and that is only part of the support group. At this year's Cup, U.S. caddies will be welcomed into the team room for the first time for meetings and meals, an acknowledgment of their importance by captain Hal Sutton. The loopers will sit elbow to elbow with the players' significant others, who have long been treated as integral members of the team.
The Ryder Cup is the only tournament in golf in which wives (and fiancees and girlfriends) are allowed inside the ropes, and the American women are always turned out in matching outfits, an affectation that draws snickers from their European counterparts, who wouldn't be caught dead in a team uniform. The American women are such a part of the action that in 1999 a handful of them joined the players in dancing across the 17th green at the Country Club infuriating the Europeans after Justin Leonard holed his famous putt.
Asked how important spouses are to the American effort, Sutton said, "I think some women make a difference. They say things that are important to their husbands. They might say the one thing that makes a difference in the half point that wins this thing."
At Oakland Hills no woman will be as closely watched as Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods's fiancee. She was on his arm at the Belfry for the 2002 Ryder Cup, but their romance had been public for only six months then, and it was not clear what the future held for the former swimsuit model. Now Nordegren and Woods are engaged, their secretive wedding plans a subject of keen interest on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nordegren may have been born and raised in Sweden, but she'll be wearing red, white and blue next week, and there's no question where her allegiance lies. "Of course she's going to root for the Americans," says Jesper Parnevik's wife, Mia, who hired Nordegren in 2001 to work as one of her nannies and later served as something of a matchmaker for Woods and Nordegren. "You always root for your man. Bernhard Langer's wife is from Louisiana, but who do you think she'll be rooting for?"
Nordegren may wear the flag on her sleeve at Oakland Hills, but she is sure to reveal little else. Even in the insular world of the PGA Tour she is a shadowy figure, talked about by everyone but close to very few. "She's become like Greta Garbo," says a member of the Tour's Scandinavian clique. "When she started dating Tiger, it was like there was an unwritten agreement she wouldn't say anything to anyone. She's still nice, but when you talk to her, you don't get anything out of her." One week of forced camaraderie at the Ryder Cup is unlikely to change that.
Woods keeps a famously tight circle, and he has a history of bloodlessly excommunicating any intimate who crosses him. Nordegren knows what is expected of her. Approached for an interview at last month's PGA Championship, she smiled sweetly and said with a light accent, "I'd rather not answer any questions. Thank you."
Whether the Americans win or lose at the Ryder Cup, the cameras will find Nordegren, as they always do. But even the spotlight of golf's marquee event will do little to reveal golf's enduring mystery: Who, exactly, is the woman engaged to the world's most famous athlete?
Elin Maria Pernilla Nordegren was born on New Year's Day in 1980, 10 minutes ahead of her identical twin, Josefine. They joined older brother, Axel, in the family home in Vaxholm, a small town 50 miles north of Stockholm. Their parents, Thomas Nordegren and Barbro Holmberg, divorced when Elin was six years old, and they have both gone on to lead extraordinary lives. A university-trained social worker, Holmberg has enjoyed a long career in Swedish government and last October was appointed Minister for Migration, a cabinet-level position that has made her a prominent voice among the country's Social Democrats. For two decades Thomas Nordegren has been one of Sweden's leading journalists, and presently he is based in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for the influential Swedish Broadcasting, for whom his responsibilities include covering the White House.
Elin and her siblings grew up in an environment crackling with intellectual pursuits. "Ideas have always been important to us," Thomas Nordegren recently told SI. In 1997, when Thomas took a position with the Berlin bureau of Swedish Broadcasting, Elin and her twin enrolled at the city's prestigious John F. Kennedy School.
Other than that year, Elin and Josefine spent their time in Stockholm with their mother, who has an apartment in the picturesque Gamla Stan (Old City). Though their parents were rich in accomplishments, the girls did not lead a life of luxury. "Elin and Josefine had to find jobs every summer to buy what they wanted," Thomas told Britain's Sunday Mirror in 2002. "They worked as cashiers in the supermarket to finance their studies, and [held] other odd jobs."
Near the end of 1999 a different kind of work presented itself to Elin. One of Sweden's leading fashion photographers, the wonderfully named Bingo Rimer, happened upon a candid photo of her and immediately recognized her star quality. Rimer looked up Nordegren's phone number and talked her into a couple of photo shoots, which took place in early 2000. "She is magnificent Swedish high quality," says Rimer, who is a regular contributor to Scandinavian Playboy. "To be a top model, both men and women have to love you. Elin is very sexy, but it's a fresh, natural, sporty look, and girls like that too. She is not the big-boobed, blonde-bimbo type that only guys like."
A Rimer photo of a bikini-clad Nordegren landed on the cover of Cafe Sport magazine in the summer of 2000, yet she did little to capitalize on this development in her career. Rimer was frustrated, and impressed, by her apathy. "Elin doesn't care about modeling," says Rimer, who remains a friend and confidant of Nordegren's. "She never has. Even the few things I got her to do, I had to drag her into the studio. Being famous, the whole celebrity thing, she really and truly does not care about that."
Instead of pursuing modeling full time, Elin (and Josefine) enrolled at Lund University, one of the top colleges in Sweden. Josefine studied law she has one year left to finish her degree while Elin's course load reflected her longstanding dream of becoming a child psychologist. But Elin's life took an unexpected turn in the summer after her freshman year.
She was working at the clothing boutique Champagne, in Stockholm, when noted shopaholic Mia Parnevik blew in. The Parneviks have four young children and employ two full-time nannies, preferably twentysomething Swedish women whom Mia brings over to the family home in Jupiter, Fla., for several months at a time. After chatting with Nordegren at Champagne, Mia all but offered her the job. "I'm really into a person's energy," she says, by way of explanation. "Elin was smart, she was down to earth, and I could tell immediately that she was great with kids." Nordegren officially signed on after further impressing Mia during a more formal interview.
In July 2001 Nordegren settled in at the Parneviks' 3,000-square-foot guesthouse, which she shared with another nanny. It was a comfortable life, Mia says, with "good pay" and two days off a week. The nannies' only responsibility was to look after the kids; they didn't have to cook or clean, as the Parneviks also employ housekeepers. "[The nannies] are not employees, they are part of the family," says Mia. Of course, Nordegren's arrival begs the question: Since she is such an attractive young woman.... "Did I worry my husband was going to screw the nanny?" Parnevik says. "Is that what you're asking? Of course not. My marriage has a lot more trust than that."
Actually, the question was going to be, Since Elin is such an attractive young woman, did you anticipate that she would attract attention from the eligible bachelors on Tour?
"No, because she had no interest in golf or golfers," says Mia. "She thought they were so silly and was always making fun of them." Another deterrent was that Nordegren still had a serious boyfriend back in Sweden, a young man who worked in real estate.