It’s hard to believe that Annika Sorenstam almost didn’t make it in golf. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the talent, but because she was so shy — she’d lose tournaments just to avoid standing in the spotlight.
“There were several times where I would miss on purpose in the end because I just didn't want to give a ... speech,” she told NBC’s Jamie Gangel on TODAY. “I mean, I was really terrified. And I think one of the coaches realized that one day and said, ‘Well, today second place and third place are going to give a speech.’ ”
“And then I thought, ‘Now my plan — what happened?’ And then I realized, you know, after the speech, that it wasn't that bad.”
She’s gotten good at victory speeches — winning 69 LPGA tournaments, including ten majors, will do that for a woman. All those wins have helped her lay the foundation for a business empire, which includes a golf course design business and a clothing line.
And this past month, she launched yet another enterprise, her own golf school. The ANNIKA Academy is located at the Ginn Reunion Resort outside of Orlando, Fla.
At the academy, students will learn not just how to play golf under the supervision of Sorenstam’s own coach, Henri Reis, but also how to get in shape like she does at a fitness center headed by Sorenstam’s personal trainer, Kai Fusser.
Trading in tennis racket for golf club
One of the events marking the academy’s opening was a golf clinic she put on for one of her charities, the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It’s all quite remarkable for someone who grew up in Sweden wanting to be not a golfer, but a tennis player.
“Bjorn Borg was my hero,” she admitted to Gangel, referring to the Swedish tennis star who dominated the 1970s, when Sorenstam, 36, was a little girl with big athletic talent.
But her love affair with tennis was short-lived. “I got burned out, to be honest,” she said. Looking around for another sport, she played soccer and then found the game that would make her a three-time AP Female Athlete of the Year.
“Luckily, I played golf,” she observed.
She became a teenage prodigy in Sweden, good enough to catch the eye of American coaches, who invited her to play college golf. Accepting a scholarship to play at the University of Arizona, she vaulted to the top of her sport, winning the NCAA individual championship in her first year. No other freshman — or foreigner — had ever done that before.
She joined the LPGA Tour in 1992. It took her a couple of years to hit her stride, but once she did, she rapidly became as dominant on her tour as Tiger Woods would become on his. In addition to ten major championships — tied with Louise Suggs and Babe Didrickson Zaharias for third all-time — she’s won 59 other LPGA events and 17 more around the world. She’s the only woman and one of just six people ever to shoot a 59 in a tournament round of golf. Like Woods, she also has added her own tournament, The Ginn Tribute, to her tour’s schedule.
A Hall of Famer, she’s been the LPGA’s Player of the Year and leading money winner eight times. Her tournament winnings? More than $20 million.
Tiger, wanna rematch?
For all that, one of her most memorable moments came in a tournament in which she didn’t even make the cut. It was in 2003, when she teed it up in Texas at the Colonial tournament, thus becoming the first woman since Zaharias in 1945 to play in a men’s PGA Tour event.
“I loved it, I loved it,” she told Gangel. “It was an amazing week. I think when I look back at my career, it's the one thing I'm going to remember.” Well, maybe one of two things. The other would be one of the many friendly matches she’s played with Woods.
“I beat him once,” she confessed.
What was that like, asked Gangel. “It was a good day. It was a very good day. Probably a day that he won't remember, but it was — it was — a great day.”