It came as no surprise when, a couple of years ago, the USGA approached Katarina Vangdal, the head coach of men’s and women’s golf in Sweden, for advice on the junior game.
Vangdal could not have been a better source of such information. For the purposes of this week’s Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesín in Spain, five of the 12 players in the European team are Swedes. Sweden had 536,203 registered golfers in 2022 (as per the 2023 European Golf Participation Report), 126,430 of them female, and a season which runs from April until October at best.
“All five of these Swedes are great players,” said Vangdal, before adding that if she had to pick someone to play for her life, she probably would opt for Caroline Hedwall, the recipient of one of one of captain Suzann Pettersen’s four picks. “Caroline and Anna Nordqvist are much the same in being able to lift their games by a couple of levels when the going gets tough.”
One of the “Swedish ways” Vangdal put forward in her conversation with the American hierarchy had to do with age.
“In America,” she said, “much is made of a junior – let’s say a Lucy Li – who is a child prodigy.” (Li qualified to play in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at 11, seven years after a 12-year-old Lexi Thompson played in the USWO.)
“The way we look at it, is that golfers can be at their best golf at 35. If you push your players (in the competitive arena) too much, too soon, you don’t give them time to work on their games."
Vangdal said that you would never see a pre-teenage Swede creating a similar stir, the reason being that the Swedish Golf Federation would not know, or indeed want to know, too much about such a child until she was 13 or older.
“We see no reason for an aspiring young player to be travelling 60 miles or so to compete in a tournament,” Vangdal said. “In Sweden, you can learn where you are and have fun at the same time.”
The club to which she is attached in Linköping, a town of 105,000 inhabitants between Stockholm and Gothenburg in south-central Sweden, is a first-class example in that it boasts about 200 juniors. Indeed, on the morning of our conversation, she was looking forward to showing a party from the Netherlands just how big a part a happy and thriving junior section can play in boys’ and girls’ choice of golf over the other sports on offer.
“The way we look at it,” Vangdal said, “is that golfers can be at their best golf at 35. If you push your players (in the competitive arena) too much, too soon, you don’t give them time to work on their games. With our juniors, we’re not looking for them to master the game tomorrow, or next week. If, say, they are making an adjustment to their swings, we tell them that it’s all about where they want to be in 10 years’ time. We’re cool with that, and so are they.”
Three of the five Solheim Swedes, all of whom will have played far more in the way of team golf than the individual variety in their amateur days, are in their 30s: Anna Nordqvist (36), Caroline Hedwall (34), Madelene Sagström (30). Linn Grant is 24, and Maja Stark is 23.
It is rare for a Swedish player not to complete his or her years at an American university. By then, as Vangdal says, their golf, like they themselves, will be able handle the professional way of life.
She hesitated to mention one of the other theories which came up in her discussion with the Americans in that it can sound somewhat improbable to those used to everyday sunshine. Namely, that she is convinced that the Swedish climate works in their favour rather than the reverse.
“In the snowy season,” Vangdal said, “the leading players of all ages and both sexes will be invited to indoor winter camps, sociable gatherings where they can focus on fitness and technique in a way that can never happen during the tournament season.” The relevant youngsters are usually 16-18 years old who attend one of the three Swedish high schools where golf and studies go hand in hand by way of preparing pupils for college scholarships in the States.
The 23-year-old Ludvig Åberg, who will make for exciting viewing at the Ryder Cup, was at the same specialist sports school in Helsingborg as Grant and Stark. And, yes, the three were playing and practising alongside one another all the time.
In addition to being a small country which can keep tabs on its players, Sweden is thrice-blessed in seeing golf as a family game. The latter is an approach which was adopted back in the early days of the Swedish Golf Federation. They looked at how things worked in Britain and realised straightaway that the separation of the sexes was something they could do without.
When GGP asked Vangdal why male Swedes have been trailing the women in terms of winning majors and making Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup sides, she was thrilled to report that they think they have found the answer. It lies in the data they have been collecting over the past few years, data which told them that Åberg was ready for the professional scene long before he made the switch this year.
“That Ludvig wanted to do as the other Swedes in finishing his university education makes him the best of role models as far as we're concerned,” said Vangdal, who went on to name Vincent Norrman, who won the Irish Open on September 10, one week after Åberg had won in Switzerland, as one of those waiting in the wings.
Proud though the Swedish Golf Federation were at having been asked to advise the Americans, Vangdal makes no secret of the fact that the latest generation of Swedes would not be where they are today were it not for R&A grants and, of course, the U.S. college system.
“It was when the LET tour was having a bad time of it in 2016 and 2017 that we realised that our players had to take aim on U.S. colleges and the LPGA Tour,” Vangdal said. “The timing is perfect in that the start of the college golf period coincides with the finish of our season.”
There is no question of the Swedish Golf Federation sending its charges away and forgetting about them. They know from experience that their players get lonely and, with that in mind, they have a hub in Phoenix where the students can go at any time and where native Swede Pia Nilsson, from Vision54 and one of the best mind-game professionals in the business, takes them under her wing.
That the hub is where you will find them during Thanksgiving, when American kids are back home with their families, is just one of the touches which contribute to the Swedish golfing success story.
Top: At 36, Sweden's Anna Nordqvist has played long enough to know what to expect and how to deal with high-pressure situations.
Tristan Jones, LET