“Some things never change,” said Annika Sörenstam as Dame Laura Davies built her famous turf tee ahead of the pairing’s first tee shots on Thursday. That quip definitely held true in many ways at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open last week. But, for the Swedish Hall-of-Famer and now U.S. Senior Women’s Open champion, after 13 years away from professional golf, quite literally everything has changed.
The most obvious difference for Sörenstam is motherhood. Having children drastically changes life for everyone, but for the 72-time LPGA Tour winner, son, Will, and daughter, Ava, dominate her focus at all times, both on and off the golf course. Their arrival at Brooklawn Country Club on Friday evening during the second round prompted the 50-year-old to take off running toward them, a moment that ended with a sweet embrace between parents and children relieved to be together again.
Sörenstam even left the first tee before the start of the third round for a hug and good luck wishes from her kids, playing away with the three people she cares about most watching – husband Mike McGee was on the bag per the usual – a dream scenario for any parent and spouse.
“It's very different to share it with your loved ones, to have them walk the fairways, see what I do for a living and see what it takes to get there. And to be able to share it with them, this is a totally family affair in a lot of ways. It's a commitment from all of us.”
The now 11-time major champion recognizes the privilege she has to be able to compete and win again as a mother of two, and is grateful for the new opportunity after reaching the pinnacle of the game, although golf is no longer her top priority. Family tops that list and having their constant support throughout the entire process of her return to golf makes this victory that much more gratifying.
“I think the joy and the happy tears, the moments, the journey, the shots, the friends, the family, everything has been great,” said Sörenstam. “Everything felt so good, and then obviously you have to go out there and finish it up. To come in here on Sunday knowing what I had to do and I did it, obviously I'm happy. It's very different to share it with your loved ones, to have them walk the fairways, see what I do for a living and see what it takes to get there. And to be able to share it with them, this is a totally family affair in a lot of ways. It's a commitment from all of us.”
The stoicism that was such a critical part of Sörenstam’s ability to dominate throughout her career has also waned noticeably. There are still glimpses of it, but you’re much more likely to see a more animated, reactive Annika, one emphatically high-fiving her caddie after a made birdie putt or engaging with the crowd, even taking a few selfies with fans during rounds.
“I have a distance now from golf,” Sörenstam said. “I have enjoyed interacting with the fans the last 10 years or so with the ANNIKA Foundation, just being with kids and remembering what it's like to be in their shoes. I want them to see somebody who's having fun do it. I have a passion for golf, I have a passion for competing, so it's a lot easier. It's a lot more fun to go out there and not feel that you have to do something or otherwise something is wrong. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just playing the game of golf and we're humans and we're just going to try and enjoy it.”
That perspective from the women’s Greatest of All Time is another marked difference. Ahead of her first senior women’s major, Sörenstam hosted her second “Share My Passion” clinic of the year, welcoming a group of girls ages 6 to 12 to the practice facility at Brooklawn for an afternoon of instruction and fun. While playing for her kids was a major reason why she wanted to return to professional competition, having recent, relevant success to draw upon when coaching young women through her ANNIKA Foundation was a factor as well.
“I think it’s more just me continuing to be in the game, to continue to be more relevant for the girls that I mentor,” said Sörenstam. “It’s easy to say I did this 13 years ago. Now I can say I played on the LPGA Tour earlier this year so I’m more in tune with what’s happening. I think it gives me a little more credibility from that side.”
But, even with all that’s changed for Sörenstam, there’s still so much that remains the same.
The golf shots are as well-struck and precise as ever, drives finding the fairways and approaches rolling up next to the hole, reminiscent of the inability to miss the Swede always seemed to possess in her heyday. The galleries are jam-packed – albeit at a smaller capacity – and every shot, good or marginal, elicits claps and cheers from all in attendance, everyone as close to the ropes as possible, trying to catch a glimpse of her greatness. Even the kids still line up in droves, begging for autographs on hats and flags, eager for a souvenir to remind them of seeing one of the game’s legends compete.
And, not surprisingly, Sörenstam is still just as competitive as ever. She didn’t come to Brooklawn with any intention of finishing second. Considering she was the last one on the putting green on more than one occasion at the American Century Championship, a tournament that she played in as a celebrity, the preparation matched the drive to be successful in her first major in over a decade.
Once the 5-under 67 was carded in the first round, the question seemed to no longer be about whether she would win or not, but rather how many could she win by? On Sunday, with a door-slamming birdie on the 16th hole and a tap-in par on the last to take the title by eight shots, everyone was again reminded of why she’s a Hall of Famer. It was a vintage Sörenstam blowout.
“It was nice to have a little buffer, just knowing there are some tough holes coming down the stretch,” said Sörenstam. “I enjoyed it, and was just focusing on one shot at a time. When I made the putt on 16, I felt like this is a nice feeling. I started to look around a little bit, but you can never really let off your guard here. It's tough. I just said, I just want to continue. I'm not going to make any mistakes. It sure was a nice walk on 18, I can tell you that.”
That nice walk culminated in the classic champagne shower and family hug on the 18th green, something that, until now, Sörenstam had never experienced. So much has changed for her since winning her last USGA championship in 2006. And it’s those changes, in life and golf, that make her maiden victory at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and latest major title the best one yet.
Top: Annika Sörenstam with her husband/caddie Mike McGee, son Will, and daughter Ava