LAKE NONA, FLORIDA | The most telling quote came late. When she fielded a question about whether or not she ever looks at the LPGA Tour leaderboard when she’s playing as a celebrity in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, Annika Sorenstam smiled and said, “I do. But it really doesn't matter much. Of course, I'm competitive, but it's not like I look there and say, ‘I wish I was there.’ I'm very happy where I am. But the competitive part doesn't go away.”
You could see that early in the week at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, Sorenstam’s home course where she and her family live most of the year. Days before she put up 39 stableford points to lead the celebrity division on Thursday, you could see the competitive juices flowing. With husband Mike McGee on the bag and their son, Will, fiddling with his mom’s wedges, Sorenstam ground out one practice session after the next, testing the new Callaway irons that her longtime sponsor sent recently.
“Before (when I was playing fulltime) I knew what I liked, and I had confidence with (my clubs) and I had success,” she said. “I really didn't want to experiment too much. I've been with Callaway for so many years. But now it's like I need a little extra. Anything they have that I can get my hands on to help me - and obviously I got the Paradigm driver when I was in Vegas in early January - then I ask them, ‘Do you have any other clubs? Because this one is going further.’
“They sent me a set of clubs last week, but the loft was off, so I was not hitting them well at all. It was actually bouncing, and I said this is not for me. But then they measured them and realized they were a little upright. They tweaked them a little bit, and all of a sudden, they fit me perfectly, so now I've got the Paradigm irons and the 3-wood Paradigm. It's really helped me.
“I'm searching for things to give me one extra mile an hour of clubhead speed, one extra yard, whatever I can get, and right now they're doing it for me."
How much distance has she gained off the tee?
“I think at least eight (yards). I mean, I'm sure I can ask Will and get exactly the right numbers because he was with me when we tested it. But I would say eight at least.
But I also need to tee the ball higher. When I play -- just the way clubs are changing and the way everything is working - I need to tee it higher now, and I need to launch it a little bit higher so that the ball stays in the air. Before (when I played) staying in the air meant the ball had a lot of spin. Now, if I can get it up in the air, it's actually staying up there a little longer, and that's what I need. Then I feel like it's almost 10 (extra) yards. And that's the goal.”
If you think that does not sound like a hit-and-giggle celebrity who is happy soaking up the sun during a fun round of golf, you’d be right. Competitors complete. They can’t turn it off.
Up until the last two years of his life, Arnold Palmer continued to hit balls every day, testing equipment and adjusting his swing to get one or two more yards here and there. It’s what drove him to get out of bed in the morning.
Tennis champion Mardy Fish, who sits in second place in the celebrity division, two shots behind Sorenstam, put it perfectly. “(Being able to compete) means everything,” Fish said on Thursday afternoon. “Adam (Thielen) said as we were sitting on 18 just waiting to hit our tee shots, ‘Is there anything you'd rather be doing right now?’ Yeah, there are not a whole lot of things. I never take these invites for granted. I'm super thankful to just be invited and to participate.”
The 52-year-old Sorenstam has no illusions. Her Tour days are growing smaller in the mirror. But drive is in her DNA.
When asked if there were any shots on Thursday that reminded her of her halcyon days, Sorenstam said, “Actually, the 9-iron on the last (hole). I hit it really good. I was shooting for a carry of 125 (yards) and it carried 133, which is obviously too much, and then it released. But it was still probably one of the better shots I hit all day. It was one of those carefree, relaxed shots. That's really what I need.
“I try too hard to hit it farther to keep up with the LPGA players and that just puts more tension (in the swing) and don't get the clubhead speed. If I go out there and relax, it works. You would think that with all the experience I have, that would be easy. But I don't care how much you played or when you played, you still have to work on things.”
Speaking of work, how much did she get in before this event?
“Not as much as I would have liked,” Sorenstam said. “I played in PNC Championship and we literally darted to Lake Tahoe. We were there for almost three weeks, so I tried to play the last few weeks. But I’ve been busy with the ANNIKA Invitational event here.
“But today felt like I was coming into a little bit of rhythm. I told Mike I'm really looking forward to this afternoon, to having a little bit of quiet, just hit some balls and find that rhythm, which is really what I need.”
With that, she was off to the range, husband and son in tow. Once a competitor...