One of the greatest seasons in golf began with a ton of doubt in early 2016.
Madelene Sagstrom was fresh off of a star-studded college career at LSU, where the native of Sweden was an All-American golfer and one of the top professional prospects in the women’s game. A mid-February flight from Baton Rouge, La., to Beaumont, Calif., just east of Los Angeles, set off questions that the 23-year-old had never encountered: Flights, rental cars, Google mapping, a pullout couch in a guest home, figuring out a new course and no teammates to root her on during the course of the day. She felt alone at her professional debut in the Symetra Tour’s season-opening IOA Championship Presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa.
Thank goodness for her life line, veteran Robert Karlsson, a fellow Swede and two-time Ryder Cupper who took Sagstrom under his wing just more than a year earlier when she was a veteran member of the Swedish National Team. They talk daily during the season. It was Thursday morning, Feb. 18, a day before the first round, and Sagstrom was unsure of how to handle the transition to professional life.
“That morning we were Face-timing and Robert kept asking, ‘Madelene, are you OK?’ No I’m just nervous, I said,” Sagstrom recalled. “But he kept prying and I finally let on that I didn’t feel like I belonged out here. I was so uncomfortable about turning pro and the new lifestyle. I just said, ‘I don’t know what to do next, how to play golf.’ So we had a long talk to figure out the strategy and what to focus on. He said, ‘Enjoy the moment.’ That was incredible advice.”
On Friday, Sagstrom opened with a career-low 64, tying the course record and taking the first-round lead. That launched a rocket of a season where Sagstrom has secured Player of the Year, Gaelle Truet Rookie of the Year and the top spot on the Volvik Race for the Card money list by winning three times, recording 11 top-10 finishes in 14 starts – including 10 times in the final group on Sunday – and the lead position in most statistical categories. She is bound for a rookie season on the 2017 LPGA.
Her textbook swing and power – second in Driving Distance on the Symetra Tour – led to accolades from her peers. Jean Reynolds, a three-time Symetra Tour winner who was paired with Sagstrom in the mid-April Chico’s Patty Berg Memorial, said: “She will be on Solheim Cup next year and I guarantee she will be top 5 or 10 in the world. It was a pleasure to play with her and she is just awesome.”
“I have very much been into the now of this season, so I haven’t looked back,” Sagstrom said this week. “Robert reminded me it was time to realize it has been a very good season. So I’m starting to understand that.”
Taking in this season is the continuation of a slow evolution for a person who grew up in rural Sweden and is now on the global golf stage. The older of two children to parents Per and Lena Sagstrom, she spent her youth in the countryside near Stockholm, mostly around horses and cows. By age 9, her parents, both in law enforcement and avid golfers, moved to Stockholm and purchased a residence near a golf course. Madelene liked golf because it allowed her to work on her own. Her brother Jesper, three years younger, is now trying to make it on the European Tour. Moving to Stockholm, making the Swedish National Team and traveling to the United States for competitions allowed her to grow. Attending LSU brought her personality even more to the forefront, especially after she doubted her game during extended practice sessions in high school.
“Back home in Sweden, I had my group of friends, but you didn’t talk to people on the streets that you didn’t know,” Sagstrom said. “It was definitely more open in the U.S. and at LSU. You just talk to people, you’re not in your own bubble. It was different than what I had grown up around. And the Southern expression y’all – that’s the greatest word of all time.”
Sagstrom has become so comfortable with the American lifestyle that she is now a social media enthusiast. She regularly posts YouTube videos about her travels on the Symetra Tour and has partnered with Abacus Sportswear and Karlsson to offer podcasts about life in professional golf.
“Showing sides of me that have not been seen is important; it makes the whole journey more genuine,” Sagstrom said. “Plus, it allows all my friends and family at home to stay in touch when they are so far away. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. I wanted to show what this job is really about.”
Sagstrom’s third victory of the season last week at the Murphy USA El Dorado (Ark.) Shootout earned an immediate “Battlefield Promotion” to the LPGA. However, since the remainder of the season is made up of limited field events, she cannot get into any 2016 LPGA tournaments. So Sagstrom is focused on finishing the Symetra Tour season next week in Daytona Beach, Fla., and then getting a fast start on the LPGA in 2017.
But first she is returning a favor to Karlsson. The 47-year old is playing well on the European Tour this season as he placed T3 at the European Open two weeks ago and is in the field at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship this week at St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns, a tournament he won eight years ago.
“I told him his game looks really, really good and that he’s going to get back to where he was really soon,” Sagstrom said. “He helps me all the time. I just hope I can help him some.”