A decade after Annika Sorenstam announced that she was stepping away from LPGA competition, she still rides around in a golf cart most days, though maybe not for the reason most would think. “As you know, I don’t really play,” she says, speaking by phone from her home outside Orlando, where she lives on a tranquil, leafy golf resort with her husband and two children. Sorenstam—an eight-time LPGA Player of the Year who won 72 LPGA tournaments during her 16-year professional career and remains on a first-name basis with the sports world—is “not a social golfer,” she says, echoing a line she has used since 2008, before one of the final tournaments of her career. Part of it is that she’s so competitive, not really wired for amiably tooling around. But most of it is that there are just a bunch of other things she’d rather do with her time.
Sorenstam’s ANNIKA Foundation, which she started in 2007 near the end of her career, focuses on supporting girls’ and women’s golf globally. Junior and intercollegiate tournaments on four continents bear her name, the most recent being the ANNIKA Invitational at Mission Hills in Dongguan, China, played on the Annika Course, which she designed. She has an apparel line with Cutter & Buck, recently competed in a triathlon, and says that she and her family “were lucky to get some cool snow” from some late-season storms at Northstar in March. These days, when Sorenstam gets into a golf cart, more often than not it’s to commute to her kids’ elementary school.
“The coolest part for us,” says Sorenstam’s husband, Mike McGee, preaching the gospel of the gated golf community where they live, “is it’s literally a two-minute cart ride to the back gate, behind maintenance, and then about a 200-yard walk to the school.” This is the kind of thing that Sorenstam had in mind a decade ago this month when she decided, at age 37 and while she was still the second-ranked golfer in the world, to walk away from the game.
“I have other priorities in my life,” she said in a press conference back in May 2008, expressing her desire to start a family and turn more attention to course design, corporate partnerships, and an Annika-branded golf academy. Less than a year later, she married McGee. Their children, Will and Ava, are now 7 and 8. “We’re just normal parents,” says McGee, who grew up the son of professional golfer Jerry McGee and who now oversees Annika’s businesses and manages her brand. “We go to the practices, we sit there, and we put the sunscreen on, we carpool.”
Still, there are those rare exceptions that can lure Sorenstam back on the course, and getting the opportunity in early May to play a round with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in a Greats of Golf competition was definitely one of them. “I got the call maybe two, three weeks ago,” Sorenstam said at a press conference before the event, “and I was like, OK, where are my clubs and where’s the driving range, I’ve got to go practice a little bit.” McGee walked the course with them as Sorenstam’s caddie. Will and Ava came too; Nicklaus flew the whole family, plus Player, to the event. The group finished tied for second at 10-under par, and while Sorenstam described her play as rusty, there were moments, like when she birdied the first hole and when she hit the best ball on her approach shot on the 12th hole, that almost felt like old times. But if these moments sparked any curiosity from onlookers about whether Sorenstam had regrets about having stepped away from competing, she soon answered that question. As she finished her round, her son and daughter walked onto the 18th green and clung to her, like little blond vines.
My favorite moment from from an amazing week. Thanks Scott Tolley for capturing it! @ANNIKA59 @jacknicklaus @garyplayer @3M @InsperityInvtnl @GolfChannel @LPGA @ChampionsTour #familyfirst #blessed pic.twitter.com/RzDXZFxXDA— Mike McGee (@JMikeMcGee) May 7, 2018
“This,” Sorenstam chirped, hugging them close, “is why I don’t play anymore.”
Back when she did play golf exactly the way that she wanted to, with unrelenting and unapologetic focus, with a schedule that afforded little time for basking (“You play in Hawaii on Sunday and then you get on a red eye and then you have an outing in Detroit or something on Monday,” is how she puts it) and that contributed to her reputation for preferring solitude to locker room camaraderie, Sorenstam was one of the game’s greats.
Between the LPGA Tour and other international play, she won 90 tournaments, 10 of them majors. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame while her career was still underway. Sorenstam’s swing was a thing of trusty beauty, confident and predictable, engineered like a metronome, its tempo her greatest strength. During a press conference before the men’s 2005 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods talked about emulating legends like Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Lee Trevino. “Do you ever emulate Annika?” a reporter yelled out. “If I could only hit it that straight, man …” replied Woods, cracking a smile.
Sorenstam operated with a relentlessness that was striking even to people accustomed to the tunnel vision world of golf. “When she started winning a lot,” says Pia Nilsson, Sorenstam’s coach on the Swedish national team and longtime friend, “she told me once, ‘Pia, please keep telling me things that can make me better.’ It was almost like she was afraid of not having more things to strive towards.” For years, Sorenstam was perceived as a bit of a lone wolf, and not necessarily incorrectly. “She wasn’t on tour to make friends, and to chitchat on the range, and go to movies with the girls, and a lot of that stuff,” says McGee. “That’s not why she was there. She was there to arrive last. She wanted to win and be the first one out on that jet.” The jets may not have changed much since those days, but the reasons for travel have: In 2016, according to an ANNIKA Foundation report, Sorenstam logged more than 40,000 miles traveling to foundation tournaments and events, and it wasn’t because she had a tee time.
Sorenstam was not always a golf obsessive, however, nor was she someone who would be mistaken as an ambassador for the sport. Growing up in Sweden, Sorenstam preferred skiing and tennis; she particularly loved Björn Borg. It wasn’t until she was a tween that she got more involved with golf at camp one summer with her sister, Charlotta, who would also become an LPGA pro. But Sorenstam was so attention-averse early on that she self-sabotaged her golf game, botching shots here and there if she sensed that she was in danger of winning a tournament and being forced to speak publicly in victory. When the adults in charge caught on to this strategy, they started having the runners-up speak, too. Sorenstam started winning after that. “She was on our Swedish junior team,” recalls Nilsson, “so she was among the six top juniors in Sweden. But she wasn’t a standout, because she was still afraid of winning, of giving speeches and all of that.”
At one tournament in Tokyo, Sorenstam was paired with a player from the University of Arizona and caught the attention of then–Wildcats coach Kim Haddow. “What I saw was just a fierce competitor,” says Haddow, who coached at Arizona and Florida and is now the head of the golf program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. “She was quiet, but boy, she was a fierce competitor. And very polite, and very respectful, and very excited when I mentioned that there was an opportunity and I would love to come have her play for us at the University of Arizona. Who would have dreamed at that time that she would become the greatest player ever for women’s golf?”
Sorenstam arrived in Tucson from Stockholm “with two suitcases and a golf bag,” she says, sounding like a character in a prestige-TV pilot. (There was no need to pack the orange balls she sometimes played with in Sweden in the winter.) She was still perfecting her English. Her roommate, Leta Lindley, would later play on the LPGA tour as well. Sorenstam won the NCAA championship her freshman season and returned for one more year at Arizona before turning pro. Today, the ANNIKA Award is given to the most outstanding woman in collegiate golf, as voted on by players, coaches, and the golf media, and is presented every fall during the Annika Intercollegiate tournament.
Playing on the European Tour after leaving Arizona, Sorenstam earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1993. In 1994, she also became LPGA Rookie of the Year, then won back-to-back U.S. Women’s Opens in 1995 and 1996, and was the tour’s top money earner eight times in a decade. And on one Friday morning in 2001, she experienced what she identifies as one of the top three moments of her career.
It was a Friday morning at Moon Valley in Phoenix, and the veteran caddie Terry McNamara could tell just by glancing at the way Sorenstam was walking that she’d need a less powerful club than usual, like a truck driver having to downshift on a hilly road. McNamara had been working with Sorenstam for about a year and a half. (In their first week together, during a trial run, Sorenstam shot a 79 at a tournament and McNamara was wrongly, though understandably, certain he’d never get the gig after that.) Sorenstam had won five tournaments in their first full year as a team, but this round was something else altogether. Dressed in a white shirt and pleated, billowing black pants, Sorenstam was, in McNamara’s retelling, “jacked up” that day.
She had been uncharacteristically late for her warm-up that morning, McNamara recalls, and not particularly inspiring on the practice range. But when her tee time came, she birdied the first hole, then the second and third, and “when I saw eight birdies on my card,” says Sorenstam of her first eight holes, “my mind started to wander.” As she approached the ninth hole, “all of a sudden there’s bunches of news stations and everything,” says McNamara. “It’s lined tee to green, three people deep, both sides. When we’d started, there were maybe 15 people following us, and six of them were family. You know?”
Later in the round, after even more birdies, “We decided on a club that was about a club less than we really would regularly hit, because she was just so pumped up,” McNamara says. Sorenstam’s day, which had started with an unusual lack of punctuation, finished with an unusual show of emotion as she realized that she had done it: She had shot a 59, which was and remains a woman’s record. After finishing her round, “She jumps on me,” says McNamara, “which is totally out of character.” He remembers Sorenstam being hounded by the media after that. “At that point, she was a little bit of an introvert,” he says. “She did all these media things through the next two days because she shot 59 and then still hung on to win the tournament. There was a lot right there that happened that really propelled her and us to all the stuff that happened in the next eight years after that.”
The experience validated a mantra that Sorenstam had subscribed to for about as long as she’d been playing golf. Nilsson, her coach in Sweden, liked to focus on the number 54: the score that would result from shooting under par on all 18 holes. “It’s about learning to set new goals, new barriers, trying to think bigger and not be afraid of what’s not been done,” Sorenstam explains. “Knowing you can birdie any hole, why can’t you do it 18 times?” When she walked off the course, she crossed paths with Nilsson. “I was blessed enough to be there,” Nilsson says, “and the first thing she told me walking off the green was, ‘Pia, now I know it’s even more possible.’”
It was this same general mentality that led her to accept a sponsor’s invitation to play in a PGA Tour event, the Bank of America Colonial, in May of 2003. Sorenstam saw it as a worthy challenge, a way to push herself in new ways during the peak of her career. In addition to her round of 59 in 2001, Sorenstam won eight tournaments that season. She paired up with Woods to win a “sloppy” made-for-TV mixed-doubles competition against David Duval and Karrie Webb. And after Webb joked, “I’ll eat my hat” if Sorenstam won eight titles again in 2002, Sorenstam won 11.
“I don’t think people grasp that this is a personal test for Annika,” her agent, Mark Steinberg, who also reps Woods, told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “For anyone to say she’s doing this for publicity is comical, because everyone knows that Annika doesn’t love publicity.”
Sorenstam’s participation in the PGA event went over about how one might expect, in that the circus surrounding the first woman to compete in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias in 1945 threatened to overshadow Sorenstam’s actual game. Green “Go Annika!” pins could be spotted on fans following her around the course, but not everyone was so enthusiastic. Vijay Singh grumped, “It’s like getting the Williams sisters to play against a man, and they’re far better athletes than [Sorenstam] is,” and said he hoped she would miss the cut. “What is she going to prove by playing? It’s ridiculous,” he said. “She’s the best woman golfer in the world, and I want to emphasize ‘woman.’”
Sorenstam hit fairly well at the Colonial, reaching 14 of 18 greens in regulation on the first day, but “her putting was the only thing that let her down,” McNamara says. “When your nerves are that bad, it’s hard to have your feelings. [...] She told me on one hole, ‘I can’t even feel my hands,’ and I was like, ‘Do your best because they’re the only ones you got.’” She shot 71 on the first day and a 74 on day two, missing the cut. “Of course it was tough, it was challenging,” says Sorenstam of the experience. “But I had support from people and knew how cool it was to be there and to really test myself. Am I good enough? What do I need to do? At the time, I felt that I was really ready.”
McNamara hadn’t comprehended at first, he says, why Sorenstam would want to play in a men’s tournament, but when she explained it that way—that she did it because she wanted to see, she had to know, she needed to try—he understood. That’s how Sorenstam operated. One of the few heated exchanges they’d ever had happened when McNamara neglected to remind Sorenstam to take into account a small topographic quirk on a golf course. “She was angry that we ended up on the wrong side of the ridge,” he says. “And I said, ‘Look, I just thought you remembered it was there.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want you to presume I know everything. I want you to talk to me sometimes like I don’t know anything. That’s the only way I’m going to learn.’”
The surest way to be talked to as if you don’t know anything, of course, is to have children. When Sorenstam joined the LPGA in 1994, the tour had recently opened a mobile child care center, sponsored by Smucker’s, for the 30 mothers on the circuit, Nancy Lopez the most well-known among them. But even with that amenity, the nomadic and in many ways antisocial realities of life in professional golf added another logistical and emotional challenge to motherhood for the women on tour. (Lorena Ochoa, the Mexican golfer who unseated Sorenstam for the no. 1 ranking in 2007, also cited focusing on family when she retired two years after Sorenstam, at the age of 28.)
These days, Sorenstam says, the average age of tour players has become so young, with so many skipping college altogether to turn pro, that many choose to complete their golf careers first and start families afterward. Enrollment in the Smucker’s child care center has been dwindling. But 10 years ago, Sorenstam was in her late 30s and contemplating her personal and professional futures at once. “The only thing I can say,” she says now, reflecting, “some of the best advice I got is to really—to smell the roses along the way. I never really did. And I’m not saying I regret it, but Amy Alcott told me that. It’s such a high, fast-paced life. I was extremely disciplined and focused and I wouldn’t want to change that, either. My goal was to leave knowing I gave it all.” In many ways, she still is.
Sorenstam had started to explore new endeavors in the mid-aughts while still competing on the Tour. In 2007, she opened a golf school, Annika Academy, in Reunion, Florida—one of her first students was Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish—and launched the ANNIKA Foundation in 2007. One day, as she was hitting balls, she realized how distracted her mind was. “I was thinking about other things,” she says. “The logo, my slogan, my business plan. And I was like, whoa, hang on a minute—I’m on the tee, I’ve got to practice.”
A neck injury in 2007 made Sorenstam further think about life off the golf course. And so did her relationship with McGee. McGee grew up around the game; one of his first jobs involved working for a Nicklaus-backed company called Executive Sports that managed golf tournaments. As a sport management major at what was then Mount Union College in Ohio, McGee wrote a senior thesis called “When the Cheering Stops” that was, as he describes it, about “how athletes deal with retirement and reinventing themselves, and how some fall apart, and get broke, and turn to drugs, and have these depression battles, and how others thrive.”
Sorenstam and McGee had exchanged hellos from time to time at various golf events over the years—from tournaments to Se Ri Pak’s birthday party—and they connected again in 2005, after Sorenstam had gone through a divorce. They became close friends, then a couple. “Mike was as competitive as Annika,” McNamara says, “plus had more of a business side.” McGee began to oversee her outside pursuits and her personal brand, always emphasizing Sorenstam’s more personable side in order to avoid what he refers to as the classic trope of the “stoic Swede” (she has an understated Nick Faldo–like sense of humor, McGee says, that people are frequently surprised by).
When Sorenstam began talking about retirement in order to start a family and focus more on her outside opportunities, McNamara thought maybe she could be convinced otherwise. “She was still playing well,” he says. “I remember thinking, I’m gonna try to talk her out of that. But she explained it to me that she didn’t have total commitment and didn’t want to do anything half. ‘Because then someone’s going to be beating me that shouldn’t, and that’s going to to bother me,’ she said. I said, ‘OK, it makes total sense.’”
Sorenstam and McGee married in early 2009 and had their daughter later that year. Early in her third trimester with her second child in 2011, she woke McGee one night to tell him that there was blood everywhere. At the hospital, she learned she’d experienced a placental abruption and that she might need to deliver the baby; McGee started typing “babies born at 27 weeks” into Google and tried not to panic at the results.
“Sometimes you’re just put in positions where it’s like, OK, what do we do here?” says Sorenstam. “You plan your journey to be straight, and it’s not always straight.”
As doctors prepped her for an emergency Cesarean section, Sorenstam informed her husband of a decision she had made. “We were going to name him Nicholas Alexander,” says McGee, “and then she said, ‘We need to name him Will.’” McGee pauses, his voice breaking. “‘Because he’s going to need the will to live.’” William Nicholas spent 57 days in the NICU, and McGee remembers that when the baby was finally strong and stable enough to be held, “They said, these babies are either cuddlers and lovers—or they don’t want to be touched,” he says. “We’re lucky: He’s a cuddler. So lovey dovey.”
As the school year winds down in Orlando, everything is in a state of flux: McGee and Sorenstam are planning a major, gut-level home renovation, and the whole family will be relocating to their vacation home in Lake Tahoe for more than a year while all the work is completed. “We’ve been packing for four months,” Sorenstam says. “Taking piece by piece down, whether it’s paintings or lamps. We had someone come today and take all the chairs.” Meanwhile, her professional schedule remains as packed as always.
Sorenstam is as sought-after at men’s tournaments as she is at women’s events: Last weekend, she participated in a Women in Business breakfast at the Players Championship; earlier this season, her whole family went to the Masters, where Sorenstam’s kids met the young golf prodigies competing in the Drive, Chip and Putt tournament and came home with newfound interest in the game. “Ava made a little friend with this girl named Ella June,” McGee says. “It was really neat to see how our kids were just watching. I think part of it was the TV cameras and the attention. They thought that was cool. Literally, every day since, they’ve either chipped, putted, hit balls, or played a couple of holes before school and after school. It’s been incredible.”
Given her wild schedule, the methodical and goal-oriented personality that made Sorenstam so successful on the golf course still comes in handy. But as a mother of two, she now sees that it has its limits. Much like her son’s premature birth was beyond anything she could have planned for, the lives and personalities of her children are also constant reminders that not everything is in her hands, or needs to be. “Early on, when you’re a parent for the first time,” she says, “you’re very particular—the formula, or the breast milk, it has to be every three hours. Routines. You’ve got to wash this, you’ve got to wash that. And eventually, it comes to a point where you go, you know what? Yes, it’s important to wash this, maybe, but this one you can chill a little bit.”
During her playing days, Sorenstam had an almost pathological focus on goals and improvement and routine; it was a characteristic that made her great and also could have made her vulnerable. Like so many of the post-retirement athletes that her husband wrote about back when he was a college kid, Sorenstam could have struggled to decide when to stop. She could have grown bitter or aimless. Instead, she has tackled the first decade of the rest of her life with the clear-eyed certainty that she always had as she stood looking out from the tee box. One of her greatest strengths is her ability never to second-guess, Sorenstam says.
“I give all effort into something,” Sorenstam says, “and if it doesn’t turn out—which, a lot of times, things don’t turn out—I don’t sit and complain about it. It’s like, you play golf and hit a shot and a gust takes it. Instead of being on the green, now you have to play a bunker shot. Hopefully you prepare, you get it up to the green, and then you go from there.”