I met Sophie Gustafson 15 years ago at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction of her fellow Swede, Annika Sorenstam. From the get-go, her stutter was never a barrier for us. Sophie’s burning intelligence and biting sense of humor radiated from the ever-present twinkle in her eye. She could level you with a glance and melt your heart the same way. We hit it off immediately.
In 2006, I left the U.S. Open in New York to be at her wedding in Florida. In 2010, we shared more than a few beers as she went through a painful divorce. We did two stories together in 2015 when a teenage boy she was mentoring – Dillon – attempted suicide because he was being bullied at school over his stutter. That same year she asked my advice about retiring as a player and becoming a caddie.
Along the way, we had countless dinners. At Indian restaurants, Sophie immediately orders papadum with onion and likes to say that she can tell how hot the vindaloo is by how much my bald head sweats. Sophie is my friend and when I saw the video this week of her speaking about the impact working with a Tony Robbins life coach has had on her stutter, it made me cry.
For 4 minutes and 15 seconds she spoke without a single hitch. In 2012, as president of the Golf Writers Association of America, I presented her with the Ben Hogan award for overcoming adversity to succeed in golf. Sophie stood next to me as she accepted with a 6 minute and 32-second video that took her eight hours to film. Eight hours. My heart soars for her. Her strength is inspiring.
Sophie, who won 28 pro tournaments worldwide, five on the LPGA, has stuttered since she could talk. She tried everything: physical therapy, psychotherapy, drug therapy. Nothing worked, until now. Suddenly, at the age of 44 a new world has opened.
“I saw a YouTube video of Tony curing a guy that stuttered and I wanted to get a hold of him,” Sophie told me. “It was impossible because he doesn’t do one-on-one anymore. I was caddying for Beth [Allen] at the time and when I told her she said, ‘Six of my best friends work for him.’”
One of those friends, Mike Lewis, got Sophie to a Date with Destiny session in December 2016.
“This event changed my life,” Sophie said. “Mike brought me together with one of Tony’s top life coaches and at the U.S. Women’s Open last year I had my first call with Steve Gill.” Now, Sophie and Steve speak every two or three weeks.
“I saw a little improvement at the end of last year but the real breakthrough came a couple of weeks ago when he told me to start meditation,” Sophie says. Meditation, breathing exercises and tapping into how she is feeling when she speaks her best have combined to transform Sophie’s stutter.
“Stuttering is a state just like happiness, depression or any other state,” Sophie explains. “I need to work to get out of that state. Now, I’m able to do that when I’m meditating. The goal is to be able find the fluid state when I’m around people, talking normal. And then as the final step to be able to do it in front of a crowd. It’s not going to be easy but at least now I know it’s possible.”
Gill noted to Gustafson that she speaks her best when she is around close friends and asked what she believes about those friends. “I said it’s that I’m accepted, that I’m loved and that I’m not judged. So he asked me to do incantations [about that] while meditating.”
Now, Sophie does 10 minutes of meditation in the morning and 10 more at night, starting with a breathing exercise. Then she begins the incantations. “At the moment I’m using, ‘I am accepted. I am loved. I’m speaking freely,’” she says. “I also say my full name because that is always a big hurdle for me.”
Sophie felt so good after her first session she sent Gill a video, then another, then another. By about the fourth or fifth video her speech was flawless. “Then last week in Adelaide [for the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open] I took a lot of long walks along the beach and I got the idea of doing a [public] video, most of all to prove to myself that I can do it.” That video has had more than 100,000 views.
Sophie and I have always laughed a lot, but even in those free and easy sessions she’d hit a stop sign after a few sentences. That stop sign is now a yield sign, if not a full-out go. By the way, Sophie tells me Dillon is doing well, graduating high school on the honor roll and that she is trying to hook him up with a Robbins life coach.
“This makes me feel great for the future but also a bit scared,” Sophie says. “I still spend most of my time in the stuttering state. But it lights a fire under my ass to actually work on it as hard as I can now because there are no excuses. It is possible.”
Truly, what I saw on that video I thought was impossible. I’m so happy for my friend Sophie. She's a true champion.