Sophie Gustafson is starting to find her voice

March 5, 2012

For 15 years I lived in fear as I struggled to hide my stuttering from the public, but after a breakout interview at last year's Solheim Cup, I'm starting to find my voice.

I was really humbled when I learned last month that the Golf Writers Association of America was presenting me with the Ben Hogan Award, which is given annually to an individual in golf who has overcome a handicap. I’m excited to go the GWAA dinner in Augusta on the eve of the Masters, but when I pick up my award, I won’t be giving a speech. With a couple hundred people staring at me, I wouldn’t get a word out. That’s because I have a stutter.

It has always been part of my backstory—in fact, my inability to communicate with the media has probably kept the golfing world from properly appreciating my 26 global victories or my three player of the year awards on the Ladies European tour. My condition got a lot of attention at the 2011 Solheim Cup when I did my first TV interview. Ever! It was my eighth Solheim; through the years I’ve watched the girls do all the interviews and have a lot of laughs in the group press conferences, and I wanted to be a part of it. But I had been turning down interview requests for so long that reporters had stopped asking me. I felt a bit overlooked. On the flight to the Solheim, I asked Val Skinner, a Golf Channel correspondent, about working together on an interview, and she loved the idea. Doing it live would have been too daunting, so we taped it early in the week. It took me more than an hour to get through a dozen or so questions—ever the perfectionist, I wanted it to be good. Even in the edited version, which ran for 31⁄2 minutes, there were times when I needed five or 10 seconds to articulate a word. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that after taping the interview, I went 4–0 and helped lead Europe to victory.

I was somewhat overwhelmed by the response to the interview. Through Twitter and my personal website the comments poured in, and they were very positive and encouraging. I was extremely touched by a woman who wrote to say I had become a role model for her nephew, who stutters.

At 38, I feel as if I have a few more good years left competitively, but my new public profile has made me realize that as my playing career winds down, I can have an important role raising awareness about stuttering. It’s a very misunderstood condition, probably because we don’t do a good job of speaking up for ourselves. A lot of people think stuttering is simply a form of shyness, but it’s actually a complex bit of neuro psychology. There is lots of evidence that it has a genetic component. (My aunt stutters, and so did two of my brothers, but they grew out of it.) I’ve talked to a lot of doctors and researchers through the years, and the simplest way for me to understand it is that there is a disconnect between the two hemispheres of the brain. Just as stress or nervousness can exaggerate my stutter, some things lessen it. When I’m being a smartass the words come out easier, and alcohol helps a little too. Friends have suggested I have a glass of wine before doing interviews, but trust me, it takes a lot more than that. The bottom line is that stuttering is part of my life.

 Growing up in Särö, Sweden, I got excellent grades in school, and the only accommodation my teachers made was to allow me to skip oral presentations. My peers never made a big deal of my stuttering, probably because I hung out with a cool crowd and was a good athlete. At an early age I gravitated to sports, where I could express myself in a different way. I grew up with four boys who lived down the street, and we did everything together: soccer, tennis, table tennis, handball, hockey, skiing, sailing. From eight to 13, I was a figure skater, but sorry, you don’t get to see any of those embarrassing photos.

People might think I chose golf because it’s a solitary pursuit, but really it was a pragmatic decision: Back then golf and tennis were the only sports in which a female athlete could make a decent living, and I wasn’t a world-beater  at tennis. For a long time stories have been going around that I intentionally blew tournaments early in my career to avoid the spotlight. That’s not true, but looking back I do think there was something holding me back subconsciously.

In the spring of 1996, before beginning my second year on the LET, a bunch of us Swedes were working with Pia Nilsson and Kjell Enhager, who were coaches for the national team. As an exercise Kjell had each of us get up in front of the room and give a mock victory speech. I had always been terrified by the thought of having to do this for real. When it was my turn, I went up and said, “Thank you.” I knew that would be good enough if I ever won. Six weeks later I had my first professional victory. It was a Swedish tour event so the trophy presentation was pretty modest, but I did make a small speech, thanking the sponsors and the crowd. When I won my first LPGA tournament, the 2000 Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, Nancy Lopez was the host and she said a few words on my behalf. Later that year, when I won the British Open, they stuck the microphone under my nose without any warning, so I said, “Thank you.” It wasn’t easy to get the two words out, but I did and it felt great.

 Through the years I’ve tried a few things to reduce my stuttering, including acupuncture and speech therapy. Neither did much. In 2004, I began working with a doctor at USC who did research on stuttering. He prescribed a cocktail of heavy-duty drugs, including some more commonly used for depression and schizophrenia. There were strong side effects, so it’s no surprise that I played some of the worst golf of my career. I gave up on the experiment after about eight months, even though I made substantial progress with my stuttering. One time I called the courtesy-car people to ask a question, and the whole conversation was amazingly routine. When I hung up I couldn’t help but think, Holy s—, that was easy. I’m still in touch with this researcher, and when my playing days are over, I plan to go back to him and try again.

I lead a fun, active life and feel fortunate to have so many friends, but stuttering does complicate things. At tournaments I sign a lot of autographs but never initiate any small talk with fans. E-mail has been a great development in my life, as has Twitter, which allows the public to experience my cheeky sense of humor.

I’ve never been one to make a list of goals, but I’d still like to win a major championship. (When I won the British Open, it wasn’t yet deemed to be one.) If I snag a major, it will be a great capper to my career. And now that I’m getting more comfortable in the spotlight, I might be ready to give a pretty good victory speech.