When 14 Swedish girls flew back to America for the start of the latest college term, their coaches did not wave them goodbye with the cry, “See you at Christmas!”
Swedish coaches are among those who remain in the closest possible touch with their players throughout their college days, with Patrik Jonsson and Anna Nordqvist, Jonsson’s pupil of more than 20 years, a case in point.
Before Nordqvist headed for Arizona State, coach and pupil spent six months preparing for her college experience to come. “It was all about helping Anna to know her own swing before she went there,” said Jonsson, now Sweden’s national women’s coach. “When the time came, she knew exactly what she had to improve and where she had to leave well alone.”
In fact, Nordqvist was so knowledgeable by the time she arrived at Arizona State that the college coaches would call on her to help the other girls, especially when it came to drills for their short games and swings.
Besides having regular catch-up calls with their charges, Swedish coaches will talk things through with the relevant college equivalents. “As a rule, they accept what we’re saying,” Jonsson said.
“It’s embarrassingly past time for us to have a development programme for our young players."
Mike Whan, USGA CEO
Which is probably why a university is on the Swedish hierarchy’s chosen four-strong list – Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Florida State and Louisiana State – in the first place: “We have worked hard to identify the colleges which would work for us and those which wouldn’t,” Jonsson said. “The ones we ruled out were those where a coach has only to get hold of a new player to feel as if he owns her.”
At this point in the conversation, Jonsson, who was in Scotland for the recent AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield, moved on to say that he never would recommend a player to go for a scholarship at a college where she would be the No. 1 player on the team. “You want them to go to wherever they will be the second or third on the team, and to take aim on being the No. 1 before they are finished. It’s all about doing things a step at a time, all the time.”
For Maja Stark, who won the ISPS Handa World Invitational three weeks ago in Northern Ireland and earned an LPGA Tour card in the process, the close link with her home professional was crucial. This, as she said recently, was mostly because she felt out of place among girls who had a very different attitude to her own.
“I’d describe my university experience as fun and stressful at the same time,” said Stark, who turned pro in 2021 after two seasons at Oklahoma State. “I found it hard to adapt to playing in a system where the golfers are encouraged to have far more of an aggressive mind-set than I have. The coach (Greg Robertson) wasn’t right for me because he wanted me to be tough and he didn’t like it when anyone got upset or looked disappointed.
“My coach at home, Fredrik Wetterstrand, is more of a ‘feelings’ guy, so I only listened to him when I was out there. He has always wanted me to be myself on the course because that way I enjoy my golf more.”
Robertson responded via email to Stark's comments as follows: “We never micromanage our players on the golf course. We certainly don’t mind them playing aggressively (in a smart way), but we never force them to play any certain way. … As for Fredrik, he’s very good at what he does and has produced some great players via his Swedish programme. I have no issues at all when our team members go to their personal coaches for help, especially someone like him.
“Perhaps Maja was in a better situation than she realised. By the time she left OSU, she was ranked in the top five in the WAGR. I’m certainly not going to take credit for all of that, but what we did at OSU didn’t seem to hold her back at all. … We are very proud of what she has done as a professional.”
Going back to Jonsson, he spends about 20 weeks a year in America, and has done as much for the past decade. It is all about keeping a friendly eye on the amateurs and professionals alike by visiting college events and some of the major championships.
He went on to talk about how, at the latest U.S. Women’s Open, members of the USGA were interested in learning more about the Swedish ways from Katarina Vangdal, his boss, and the overall head of men’s and women’s golf in Sweden.
Mike Whan, the USGA’s chief executive and a former LPGA commissioner, had long before identified what other countries had and the Americans lacked. “It’s embarrassingly past time for us to have a development programme for our young players,” said Whan, who last week appointed Heather Daly-Donofrio to spearhead a USGA effort to build a national programme.
It goes without saying that Whan was particularly impressed with the way Sweden shepherded their players as juniors, and carry on shepherding them when they turn professional, even to the extent of establishing a Swedish hub in Arizona.
For example, when Ingrid Lindblad, who was the low amateur at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, needed a bit of help in finding herself a caddie at the last minute, she did not have to look outside the Swedish community. She rang Jonsson and he, in turn, made a successful call to Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson, the former Women’s British Open champion who has been caddying on and off since her retirement in 2015.
Another area where the Swedes have been ahead of the clock from the moment they first fell for golf in a big way – that was in the 1960s – is in seeing the sport as a family game.
“It probably costs about £200 (about $235) for a girl to be a member of a club in Sweden,” Jonsson said. “But if and when she is good enough to compete on the national junior circuit, the club will pay for her trips.” In other words, a girl doesn’t need rich parents to move on to the next level.
Jonsson offered another interesting observation on golf in the States, this one away from the college scene. He thinks that the game needs to be made more accessible.
“They’re stuck a bit,” he said. “The players don’t necessarily develop as anticipated. American parents can make things too easy for them.”
He also wondered whether they might have a tendency to get carried away with standout kids at the expense of those who do not shine until a few years later.
His warning summation went like this: “It’s easy to sink a putt when you’re 14; not so easy when you’re older.”
Top: Former Oklahoma State golfer Maja Stark has won six times since turning pro in August 2021.