When Annika Sorenstam starts talking about her first U.S. Women’s Open victory in 1995, she can’t believe it was more than 20 years ago.
“When you say ‘20 years,’ it seems so long ago,” she admits. “But that’s when it was.”
Sorenstam was a youthful 25-year-old then, who captured her first LPGA Tour event that magical week in Colorado.
“I didn’t know any better, I was just playing to survive. That’s the way you play the first couple times when you’re in an Open,” she says with a small laugh. “My expectations were so low, but I was able to do it.”
She liked the feeling so much that she decided to turn the trick again the following year, becoming the first back-to-back winner of the Women’s Open since Betsy King in 1989-90 (before that, it hadn’t happened since the 1970s).
But Sorenstam says she doesn’t remember much about her six-shot victory in 1996, saying it was a “blur” the whole week.
“I was so focused on proving to myself that my first major wasn’t a fluke,” she recalls. “I wanted to prove to myself that I knew I could do it.”
The 45-year-old says now that she thought she had the ‘formula’ to winning U.S. Women’s Open figured out, after winning the first two she participated in. But she didn’t find the winner’s circle again until 2006, 10 years after her victory at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, 10 years ago this week.
“I had the patience (that year) but I played again like I did the first time I played an Open,” she explains. “All the other years I got in my own way. I knew my career was coming to an end, slowly, and I had nothing to lose. So I went out and played like it was my first.”
Sorenstam ended up winning that year in a playoff over Pat Hurst, the last time the LPGA Tour would have an 18-hole Monday playoff to decide a U.S. Open winner. It was the Swede’s final major championship win, although she would go on to win four more Tour events before her retirement in 2008.
She recalls that 2006 win as being one of the toughest major championship tests she ever had. Her round Thursday was cancelled due to fog, so she had to play 36 holes on Friday.
“It just seemed like so much golf in a short period of time. You kind of just push play and go into that mode, rather than having more days to think about what you need to do,” she says. “It was a tough golf course. I loved it, but it was tough”
“I played some of my best golf ever,” continues Sorenstam. “I was extremely focused, and it happened to be my time. I remember that win quite clearly, because I started my career and ended my career with that one (a U.S. Women’s Open), so that was pretty cool.”
A decade after her final major triumph, Sorenstam says she doesn’t miss it. She admits she was in the ‘back nine’ of her career in 2006, and now she has other excitement in her life.
“Sure, there’s something about coming down the 18th hole, and having that adrenaline and that opportunity to win. There’s something about that,” she says. “But you quickly realize that you can’t just wake up and play a U.S. Open. It takes a lot of preparation and commitment, and I’m just not in that chapter anymore.”
Those who are, like Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, and Ariya Jutanugarn are some of the generational superstars Sorenstam is excited to see this week at CordeValle Golf Club where she’ll act as an analyst for Golf Channel/NBC.
“There’s a new group of young girls that have a lot to offer, and they’re extremely talented. Plus, they’re fun,” she says. “It’s three different nations that they’re from, and of course, there are other stars in there too. The teenagers are stepping up, and it’s a fun group to watch. It proves it’s a global game.”
As far as Sorenstam’s other interests are concerned, her business ventures under the ANNIKA brand include course design, an instructional academy in Florida, a clothing line, a vineyard, and she has a charitable foundation as well. She’ll be the European Solheim Cup team captain in 2017, too.
So when she’s asked if she misses the competition, well, she doesn’t. She’s as competitive in the business world as she was on the golf course.
“If I didn’t have that, I probably would have missed (golf), but I have my excitement, I have my competitiveness, I have my adrenaline,” she says. “I get my fix there.”
Sorenstam is also busy as a mother, too. William Nicholas McGee was born in 2011, the younger brother to Ava Madelyn McGee, who was born in 2009 and is already participating in junior golf twice a week.
“It’s fun,” says Sorenstam of her kids’ interest in the game. “We take them out, and I want (Ava) to understand where I come from, and understand what her Mama did.”
Ava could have a lot of learning ahead of her, as she understands the impact her ‘Mama’ had on women’s golf. As Sorenstam acts as a commentator on the current (and next) generation of female golf superstars this week, she’ll also think back to her trio of U.S. Women’s Open victories on their to-the-decade celebrations.
And even though 20 years has gone by quickly, she’ll always have some great memories.
“I smile thinking of it, especially now,” she explains. “I know what the girls are facing, but I’ve been there and done that, and I’m very content with that.”