LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | She’s here as a celebrity, playing with zero expectations and an obvious layer of rust. But some things are like riding a bike.
When Annika Sorenstam stepped onto the tee Friday at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions and was announced as “retired LPGA player and 10-time major champion,” the old habits clicked in – two waves and a smile to the smattering of fans socially distanced around the first tee, followed by a practice swing and the same setup and waggle that dominated the women’s game like no one since Mickey Wright.
The competitor in her won’t let her mail it in. Even with her husband, Mike McGee, carrying a Callaway stand-bag, even with the shots that used to go so straight you could use them as radar vectors now falling ever so slightly to the right – the post-50 fade – Sorenstam has still played her way into the top-10 of the celebrity division in this tournament-within-a-tournament.
But that’s not what excited her on Friday. For the first time, Annika played with today’s top American player, Nelly Korda, who shot a six-birdie 66 and enters the weekend two shots out of the lead held by Danielle Kang.
“She played fabulous,” Annika said of Nelly. “She drove it beautifully today. Hit a lot of good iron shots. I actually felt like she probably could have been a few shots better. These how good she played.
Korda repaid the compliment with a bit of an unintentional sharp-edged twist. “It was really cool, honestly. She still has it,” the 22-year-old said. “She has her touch around the greens. It was honestly surreal. That you can still compete at her age... Once you have it, you never lose it.”
Annika laughed out loud at that one. “I'll take that compliment,” she said. “I mean, I had maybe a handful of good shots, but then probably the rest of whatever makes 70 (her medal score on Friday) was not something I'm going to carry with me.
“Again, it's about the experience. It's fun to be out with these ladies. Considering I've never really played against Nelly - just watched her as she played in our (ANNIKA Foundation junior) tournaments - to see her grow and play so beautifully, it was fun.
“I guess I feel a little part of some of the success of growing girls' golf. We know in the last 15, 16 years the participation rate (among girls) has doubled. Nelly is part of the next generation as far as golfers coming up. It's nice to see.
“She's the best U.S. player. I think we all enjoy seeing her up there. She has a lot to be proud of. I know she's going to do great this year and maybe this week, but in the future for sure. She has everything she needs to go out there and play.”
On the technical side, where Annika is a master, she said of Nelly’s game, “I don't know if surprised me, but I appreciate her driving. I mean, I hit a few good ones and she was -- her ball was probably launching still when it passed mine. I mean, she hits it beautifully. She hits it a little lower than some of the other players, but she was so straight, penetrating through the wind. I thought that was really impressive. I've just seen her from outside the ropes. If you see her play inside, it’s fun to watch.”
Annika will be paying close attention again tomorrow. She also has a close connection with Kang, whom she has seen play. Danielle made her Solheim Cup debut in Des Moines in 2017 when Sorenstam captained the European squad. But recently the two have been texting, an exchange that Kang initiated concerning a specific question about wedge play. Since then, the conversations have broadened into strategy, preparation and how to get off to a quick start.
“Her advice has gotten me pretty far,” Kang said of Sorenstam. “She doesn't think it's much, but it's helped me a lot.”
“We only talk on occasion here and there,” Annika said. “She works with Butch (Harmon) and she just said, ‘Hey, I'm just working on (this or that). It started with her wedge game. We know she can hit the ball. She is quite aggressive. And then the conversation led more to her scoring. She felt like she was a slow starter and always played better in the end. So, we had a few little chats on how to get off to a better start.
“She's obviously doing well this week. She's very committed to her game and working hard. I think it helps to have Maverick (McNealy), her boyfriend, in the same industry. I am sure they push each other quite well.”
Kang would love nothing more than to follow in Nelly Korda’s footsteps and play with Annika at some point this weekend. “It would be incredible to play with (Annika),” Kang said. “I would be really nervous if I played with her right now. But it's actually kind of my dream to play with her at least once. So, it would be really amazing.
“She's always been a very welcoming, classy person that has been approachable, always giving me an opportunity to approach her. So, I took it.”