Following a 15-Year Hall of Fame Career, Sorenstam's Work on the Course is Far From Finished
October 5, 2017
By Nick Hunter
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – For many professional athletes, forming a partnership with a charitable organization is a part of the job and a way to connect with their local communities. For others it takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a lifelong commitment to reach and to leave an impact on thousands of lives all over the world.
Annika Sorenstam is easily recognized as one of the greatest golfers of all time, collecting 89 professional victories, including 10 major wins, and earning LPGA Player of the Year honors eight times. But since her competitive playing career ended in 2008, it’s the admirable work of the ANNIKA Foundation that has been equally respected and continues to earn the praises from many across the globe.
“Early on it was very broad—it was like, ‘I want to make a difference, I want to share my knowledge,’ and now I tell my team I want to be in every corner of the world somehow. I don’t want it to be geographically disadvantaged,” Sorenstam said of forming her foundation at the tail-end of her playing career in 2007.
“I felt a little bit of responsibility, but also excitement. I thought, ‘I’ve achieved this, now how can I give back to the game?’ You look at the things that come naturally and the things that I care about, which were nutrition and fitness, aspiring to fulfill your dreams for girls,” she said. “We had several pieces and we had to find something that’s not overly broad and you really want to be able to make a difference.”
Through Sorenstam’s foundation, young golfers learned the importance of an active and healthy lifestyle and offered junior golfers with opportunities to go even farther than they imagined.
The ANNIKA Foundation conducts five ‘major’ championships for junior girls: the ANNIKA Invitational at Reunion Resort in Orlando, Fla., the first all-girls junior event at Mission Hills Golf Club in China, the ANNIKA Invitational in Europe and the ANNIKA Cup, a team competition played by the best junior players in her home country of Sweden.
Most recently, in 2016 Sorenstam’s foundation created the ANNIKA Invitational Latin America in Argentina.
“In Latin America, we had over 20 different countries at that tournament last year,” Sorenstam said. “Some of these countries, it’s very small, they might have one or two representatives, but it just opens it up for them.”
Along with golf great Jack Nicklaus, Sorenstam was named Global Ambassadors by the International Golf Federations and the two were imperative in getting the sport included into the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.
“I think golf in the Olympics has helped, too. To give them the chance and the exposure or meeting other girls and telling them it’s okay to play. The goal now is every corner of the world somehow. We’re touching a lot of these girls’ lives and making them stronger women is my goal.”
It wasn’t until Sorenstam was 12-years-old when she first picked up a golf club, but she was already an accomplished tennis player as well as a downhill skier.
“We had some tournaments. At 12 I was competitive at tennis, so golf was a little bit on the side. In the summer I would play, we didn’t have a ton of events—nowadays is every week for these kids—but we had tournaments and I would watch older, successful amateurs and they inspired me and I would look and learn. I dreamed about what it would be like,” Sorenstam recalled.
The defining moment of her golf career came when she was recruited to play at the University of Arizona, where in just two seasons she went on to win seven collegiate events, including the NCAA individual championship in 1991.
“The biggest thing was college for me. All of the sudden I was exposed to U.S. players and exposed to LPGA players in Tucson,” she said. “I watched them hit balls on the range and thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can do this one day.’
“College golf gave me a lot so I feel a responsibility to give back one way or another. Who knows where my career would’ve been if I didn’t go to college. It was a big step to go from Sweden to [the University of Arizona], but given the opportunity to play all year round and to play against the best in the world at that age. It gave me so much, so this is my way of saying thank you and it falls into the foundation’s mission to provide opportunities for the next generation.”
In conjunction with the Minneapolis-based 3M Corporation, the Haskins Commission and Golfweek, in 2014 Sorenstam’s foundation implemented the ANNIKA award, which is given to the nation’s top female golfer, and also saw the creation of the ANNIKA Intercollegiate, which has become one of college golf’s premiere events in just its fourth season.
“We had the younger girls, 13 to 18, and felt like we needed to bridge the gap from 18 to the professionals, so college really fell in beautifully when the Haskins committee came and asked to be a part of it, and with the Annika Award, it tied in beautifully,” Sorenstam said.
“I’m very proud of the hard work that the team has put together and we have some excellent partners—it’s not a one-man show by any means. It’s somebody like 3M that supports us financially and with all of the resources.”
For the first time in three years, the ANNIKA Intercollegiate moved from Orlando and was contested earlier in the week at Olympic Hills Golf Club in Eden Prairie, Minn., boasting easily one of the toughest fields in college golf with six teams entering the championship ranked inside the top-20.
The University of Arkansas, ranked No. 1 for good reason, cruised to a 12-stroke victory over the University of California-Los Angeles. From the field this week, 34 players were alumni of the ANNIKA Foundation and three members of this season’s Solheim Cup played junior golf in the ANNIKA Foundation.
Since her playing days at Arizona, a big difference in the college game is the number of international players, likely influenced by Sorenstam herself.
“It’s very global. I was an international player, and maybe there was international player here or there, but now every team has two or three,” she said. “If you look at the different initiatives that our foundation has, we now have six global events—four of them are invitationals.
“We go China, Europe and Latin America. Every topic that is popular is college golf. They all want to hear about it and they all have it on their horizon and it’s a dream, but they don’t know how to get there, what to do, what it means. We have made a point to have a workshop for college golf so these girls can ask questions and hopefully get some answers.”
Drawing some of the world’s most talented junior golfers to her events, it has also caught the eye of dozens of coaches in hopes of moving the players on to the next level.
“The tournament we have in Orlando, we had 50 coaches there, and we go to Europe and there are lots of different coaches and these tournaments are becoming a scouting ground because we get the best fields,” she said. “It attracts coaches and then it attracts players. It helps because college golf is a big step in somebody’s career and big decisions to be made.”
During Tuesday’s final round of the ANNIKA Intercollegiate at Olympic Hills, Sorenstam stood off the 18th green and greeted each competitor with a smile and a hug as they finished play.
“I enjoy hanging with them. College is a little different than an invitational. Here you have teams and coaches and a welcome dinner, a Q & A and a clinic, so the interaction with them and when they get engaged is what I like the most.
“It’s become more than just this event, and that’s our tagline, ‘More Than Golf,’ so it’s been fun to see some of these girls playing for a few years and then, all of the sudden, they’re at Stanford and then they turn pro and now they’re on the LPGA.”
As number of golfers continues to grow, with kids picking up the clubs at a younger age, Sorenstam said she’s continually impressed by the skills and passion junior golfers possess for the game.
“It’s impressive to see how good they are, how composed they are and how they have routines,” she said. “They’re consistent in their focus and I think it’s a credit to the game, what it can do to individuals at any age.
“It forces you to have things have things in order, and I like that. That’s what I talk about a lot is that golf is very similar to life. If you play golf, you’ll be amazed that the day you step away, you realize that golf has taught you so many life lessons, that you will use later in life. That’s why golf is a sport that everyone should try—it’s about etiquette, your own values and everything that comes with it and it think it’s very beneficial.”
Aside from her foundation, Sorenstam is involved with course design, and recently partnered with Arnold Palmer to build Royal Golf Club, at the site of what was formerly Tartan Park Golf Club in Lake Elmo, Minn., with one nine known as The King and the other as The Queen.
ANNIKA Course Design is responsible for creating the ANNIKA Course at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, China, as well as the Euphoria Golf Estate & Hydro in the Waterberg region of South Africa. Sorenstam’s team also completed the Golden Bay Golf Resort in TaeAn, South Korea. There is also the ANNIKA Collection, which designs high-end golf apparel.
“I’m lucky to choose the things I want to be involved with. Since August, I’ve almost had a trip every week somehow, but it goes in waves—it could be the course design or recently it was the Solheim Cup. It’s fun because it’s always a variety of things.
“We feel like the tie with my course, 3M and the event this week has certainly been positive. It’s been a nice addition to what we do. I love when partner with others—there’s only so much we can do because we’re a little crew. We want to make sure we have an impact, we’re going to explore opportunities and how we can tie in [the Minnesota Golf Association] possibly with junior girls because this is a big initiative. But how can we help each other in very fruitful way?”
Though she travels a good portion of the year to put on dozens of clinics to players of all ages and skill levels, Sorenstam remains committed to growing the game and leaving a lasting impact on the players within her foundation.
“For me, I’m extremely competitive, but I also want to be a part of it and help them and this is the stuff that I know. It’s been fun to see the development whether it’s the [ANNIKA Invitational] or the [ANNIKA Intercollegiate] and the players’ performances. When look at the stats now, in 1995 we had 17 percent of junior golfers were girls. Fast forward and now we have 33 percent, so for all the junior golfers, a third of them are girls. That says a lot, of course there is room for improvement, but it’s nearly doubled.
“Having different initiatives for girls—they need role models, they need opportunities—if we’re going to grow the game, whether it’s professional golf or college golf or being successful in their own field. A lot of these girls are incredible role models. I feel like golf is an amazing platform to build character for these young girls and, who knows, they might be executives one day. We want leaders and influencers and want these girls to be up there.”