Queen of golf

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 Margie Goldsmith talks to Annika Sörenstam, the greatest player in the history of women’s golf

Annika Sörenstam, considered the greatest and most dominant player in the history of women’s golf, has rewritten the LPGA and Ladies European Tour record books and changed the way women’s golf is played. Sörenstam is the only female golfer to cross the US$20 million mark for LPGA career earnings, and during her 15-year player career, earned over $22 million. Known as ‘Ms 59’ because she is the first woman to break 60 in a professional tournament, Sörenstam has won 89 worldwide victories, 10 major championships, a record eight Rolex Player of the Year awards, and six Vare Trophies for lowest scoring average in a season. She was the first woman since 1945 to play in a PGA event resulting in a 44% increase of TV golf viewers and a 14% increase in attendance.

In 2008, Sörenstam stepped away from the LPGA and became an entrepreneur, creating the Annika Foundation, a charity which offers aspiring junior golfers opportunities to pursue their dreams and five golf-related ‘Annika’-branded businesses: Annika Academy, a boutique-style golf school near Orlando Florida; Annika Collection with Cutter & Buck for women’s golf wear; Annika Financial Group catering to the needs of professional athletes; and Annika Course Design which has completed golf courses in Shenzhen, China; TaeAn, South Korea; Impopo, South Africa; The 27 Club in Tianjin, China, with each hole designed by a major champion; and The Estonian Golf & Country Club in Estonia, her first European design.

Sörenstam is presently creating a course in Minnesota with Arnold Palmer Design, which will be aptly named The King and The Queen. In addition to her branded businesses, she is an analyst for NBC Golf’s broadcast of major LPGA championships.

As a young girl, Swedish-born Sörenstam was a talented all-around athlete who played soccer, was a nationally ranked junior tennis player, and such a good skier that the coach of Sweden’s national team wanted her family to move to northern Sweden. At twelve, Sörenstam’s golf-playing parents encouraged her to watch them play and get a feel for the game. Four years later, Sörenstam took up golf and liked it so much that she stopped all other sports to become a better golfer.

By 1989 she was a competitive player. While playing in a collegiate event in Tokyo, a coach spotted her and persuaded her to move from Sweden to play golf at the University of Arizona. Sörenstam left Sweden with two suitcases and a golf bag. The move was a radical change of culture, language, and tradition, but in exchange, Sörenstam became the most successful female golfer in history. In August 2007, she married Mike McGee, the managing director for the Annika businesses. They have two American-born children. Sörenstam has been a United States citizen for the last 10 years. “This is my home,” she says. “Leaving Sweden was quite a change, but that’s what life is about: going to different places and experiencing different things. I’ve learned a lot along the way and I’m very thankful for getting that opportunity.”

Annika Sörenstam has two homes: one in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and one in Orlando, Florida, where we caught up with her.

Q: I understand you were so shy as a junior that you used to deliberately three putt at the end of a tournament to avoid giving a victory speech?

A: That’s true. In Sweden you have to give a winning speech after a golf tournament, so to me it was easier to finish second or third and still get a prize, but not have to say anything. This kept happening and my parents would say, “How’d it go?” I would be burning inside because I knew I could do better but I was intentionally missing. At the next tournament, they decided if you finished second or third, you also had to say something. So, I stumbled some words out and realised making a speech wasn’t the end of the world; besides, I’m extremely competitive, and I felt much better saying something and winning. That little bump along the way actually helped me.

Q: When you became the first woman to play in the men’s PGA tour since 1945, you received worldwide media attention. Did you face discrimination from the male players?

A: I don’t know if discrimination is the right word. There were some documented players who wanted nothing to do with me and thought I didn’t belong there. Some decided they were not going to play because of me. But a lot of players reached out and wished me good luck – people of all walks of life such as Arnold Palmer and Billie Jean King.

Q: You and Jack Nicklaus were named global ambassadors for the International Golf Federation to help win golf’s successful bid for inclusion in the 2016 Olympics. What did you hope that exposure would do for golf?

A: I believe the Olympics were good for the game globally and will grow golf from a grassroots level. When you’re an Olympic sport, suddenly most countries receive federal funding. The United States and some parts of Europe excluded, in other parts of the world people don’t even know what golf is. In China, Asia, and Sweden, the Olympics are a big deal. When you look at golf as an industry how do we grow? How do we share it with others? We do it by going to areas where it has not been played. I feel the Olympics is that tie. I learned a lot from working with Jack Nicklaus and thought it would be great to design a course in which men and women could compete at the same time. Obviously, the Olympics lasts only two weeks, and then it’s over. You have to think of the sustainability of the game in some of these areas and take advantage of the excitement from the Olympics: activate junior activities, grass roots initiatives, and make golf accessible to the public.

Q: You’re captaining the European team fir the first time, in the 2017 Solheim Cup. Do you think that the Europeans will reclaim the cup after losing to team USA in 2015?

A: Well obviously we’ll have to see, but I think the last few times we’ve played, the Solheim Cup has been elevated to a different level. The Solheim Cup has always been a part of my career, and I’ve been lucky to be able to play in eight of them and also as a vice-captain. I feel very honoured to have this chance to be the captain.

Q: What do you think is the biggest difference between men’s golf and women’s golf?

A: Other than the obvious as far as TV and exposure, I’m sure that more participation, the depth in men’s golf is deeper than the women’s. But women’s golf has come a long way and being competitive in the LPGA, on the European Tour, it’s very much a global game. I see more similarities than I see differences. And it’s really a game for life and for men and women at different ages.

Q: What are you doing now to bring more attention to women’s golf?

A: I have a foundation. We run six different golf tournaments around the world; we’re heading to Europe soon, we’ll have a tournament in Sweden, then Argentina. I try to really inspire the next generation to fulfil their dreams. We use golf and nutrition and fitness as the platform because it’s more than just hitting a seven iron. I’m also part of the broadcasting team, designing golf courses, and I have a golf clothing line. I still have my foot in the game.

Q: In 2007 you were diagnosed with ruptured and bulging discs in your neck, the first major injury in your 13-year LPGA career. After your two-month injury rehabilitation break, you returned to golf but admitted to being at only 85% of your fitness. Is that why you announced you would step away from competitive golf?

A: When I was away, I realised I had lots of other interests and started to enjoy other things. For me, reaching a peak in golf is like climbing Mount Everest. I’ve been there and looked at the view, and that’s when I realised there are other mountains I want to climb in my life. When I came back from that injury and won, I knew in my heart that if I really wanted to, I could do this – come back from these challenges. But it was no longer part of my motivation – it was time to move on. I’d achieved more than I ever thought I could.

Q: And what did you plan to do with your life post golf?

A: At first, being a mom and a wife were my most important roles, but I knew I wasn’t just going to say goodbye to golf and leave, because I’d miss it. I do get my golf fix; I’m involved with my foundation to build a legacy and help build the next generation of golfers. I love having my foot in the game in these different projects because I’m not a person who sits still; I juggle the household, my children, and the businesses. I’m always on the go.

Q: What was the first business?

A: My foundation was first, in 2007, and then I started the Golf Academy in 2008, which we just closed down because I feel there are other things I want to focus on now.

Q: How did you transition from professional golfer to entrepreneur? Did you have a mentor? And if not, a foundation is a business; how did you learn about running a business?

A: I’m lucky to have some great friends. I put together an advisory board of people I’d gotten to know from all walks of life: marketing CEO, financial – different specialists that have expertise in different areas. I made clear my goals and they guided me along the way. I have a great CFO and I’m surrounded by good people.

Q: Were the frustrations and emotions of running this foundation similar to what your experienced playing golf?

A: Yes. I keep saying I’m about an 18 handicap in business. I make mistakes, I made a few mulligans here and there, but then I also look at the similarities between golf and life. There’s so much synergy there and obviously, the working hard aspect is a given: the determination, the focus, the commitment, the dedication, the patience. You need to have a plan, a strategy; you need to execute and analyse – that’s what I did in golf. I kept track of every round so I could keep track of my weaknesses and my strengths, so I could figure out my goals and what I needed to get there. I have an analytic mind and have surrounded myself with good team. I‘ve set short-term goals and long-term goals.

Golf is very similar to business: you just change the product or the playing field or territory. I used to just have one employee, my caddie. We’re a bigger team now and every day I ask, “Why? Why this and why not that and what can I do differently?” That’s how I learn and get better. We made mistakes in life, but hopefully, work through them, survive them, and not do them again. I always tell people, one day it’s sunny on the golf course, the next day it’s windy or rainy, and you have to adjust. You still have to play the game and trust yourself and keep to your beliefs. That’s all you can do.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in business?

A: I’ve partnered with a few people who didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped they would. I’m stubborn but realistic and know that when something isn’t working, you have pull the plug and move on.

Q: In 2008, America was in a recession. How did you get through that with your start-up company?

A: I couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a business, but it’s made me tougher and more resilient. I had a vision and a business plan, had just created a high-end golf school, and was selling expensive wine. But people were holding onto their wallets. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have started in 2008, but I learned from it. When things were turning around, when we didn’t have the wind in our face, it was a lot more fun.

Q: The Annika brand seeks to combine golf, fitness and charitable works into various businesses with the brand statement ‘share my passions’. There are five brands, correct?

A: Yes, and we also have the Annika Foundation and licensing agreements for women’s golf clothes and course design.

Q: Which part of your life has been tougher: playing golf or running businesses?

A: They’re both tough, as is being a mom, but I enjoy challenges and having plenty of projects in the works. I love to increase my knowledge and I also enjoy sharing my knowledge, including mentoring young girls.

Q: Have you faced any discrimination as a woman in business?

A: I would say the biggest thing is golf design, which is a very male-dominated business. I wouldn’t say ‘discrimination,’ but I’d hear things like, “Oh, you’re building a course for women?” And I’d say, “No, I’m building a course for golfers.” I think it’s more the perception. But like anything, if you’re going to be successful you’ve got to work hard. I never really see that as a hurdle; it just makes me want to work even harder.

Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in business?

A: My dad told me a long time ago there are no shortcuts to success.

Q: You have homes in both Florida and Nevada, plus all the businesses to run. Do you fly privately?

A: Yes, I have 50 hours a year with NetJets.

Q: When did you first fly privately?

A: In 1995, I was invited to do a corporate outing. Sometimes I have to be in many places in a short period of time. That was when I realised that flying privately could help me be productive and efficient. I don’t fly as much as I used to, but when I was competing, I flew as much as 75 hours a year. I still fly privately because I want to save time, whether getting home for the kids or flying to a meeting.

People say flying privately is so expensive, but think of the outcome. You can extend your career by a year or two or even five. You have to look at it from a long-term perspective. For me, time is money. To make good decisions, you have to be rested. Also, as a mom of a five-year-old and six-year-old, I want to be home when they wake up in the morning. But I don’t want to turn down any opportunities, so I need to be efficient in travel.

Q: If you could buy any plane, which one would it be?

A: Well, if money isn’t an issue, I’m not going to turn down a G5!

Q: And you’re happy with NetJets?

A: I’ve been with them since 1995 or 1996 and they’ve been great. Safety is the most important thing and then comfort and convenience.

Q: What do you particularly like about the Citation 10?

A: It’s a convenient size, especially for just one or two people. It feels like a sports car in the air. I mean I haven’t piloted it, but that’s what it feels like. Remember, you get what you pay for also. Luggage is not an issue, space is not an issue, there are seven seats, and we can fly into smaller airports. That’s the thing when going to places where perhaps a larger plane couldn’t land. You want to be able to have that option.

Q: What are some of your future projects?

A: The Solheim Cup for 2017 is a big deal and I want to finish up these golf course designs. I’m part owner in a company called Capillary Concrete, which is a revolutionary bunker liner system. This is a wonderful alternative to help sustain golf courses. It’s very expensive to run a golf course today — bunkers are a good example. It costs a lot of money every year, but is also time consuming for the staff. Capillary Concrete is a revolutionary bunker lining system that is environmentally safe, financially beneficial, gives players a consistent playing surface and has an incredible longevity. It’s the only moisture controlled application in the business.

Q: You also represent some world-class companies such as 3M, Ahead Calloway, Golfing World, Lexus, Pacific Links International and Rolex?

A: I’ve been lucky. They’ve stuck with me both through my playing career and now. I believe in their products. I’ve been an ambassador for Rolex since the first time I won the Rolex Rookie of the Year and then Player of the Year. Now, they support my Juniors Golf Tournament around the world. Same thing with Calloway. I went from a player representative to the ambassador of the equipment. Calloway and Rolex helped me grow the game of golf. I can actually do more as a non-player because I’m available to attend the events.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I want to be known as more than just someone who’s competed. I want to be known as somebody who loves a challenge, somebody who cared about the game of golf and wanted to grow the game, and mostly as a person who stepped up to a challenge to reach my full potential and to inspire others to be able to do that in whatever field they’ve chosen.

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