LAKE NONA, FLORIDA | She was one of the first to arrive on Thursday, catching the 7:30 a.m. shuttle bus from the Wave Hotel for the short trip to Lake Nona Golf & Country Club. Almost 11 hours later, as the sun turned the Central Florida sky the color of a ripened grapefruit, Sweden’s Maja Stark got on the bus again headed the other way, her shoes in one hand and her putter in the other.
“I made a goal to practice six (additional) hours of putting a week,” Stark said on Friday after firing a 4-under par 68 to enter the weekend tied for fifth at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions. “I didn't really realize how much more (practice) that is than I usually do. But that's great for me. I feel like it pays off, especially with confidence.
“My putting was better, especially the first nine (on Friday),” Stark said. “Then it was kind of slow. But, yeah, I think the putting was the big thing because I think my irons weren't that good. But I finally started making those 10-footers, so that helped.”
Stark is one of those players that doesn’t leave you guessing. If you want to know what is feeling, just look into those big blue eyes. Good or bad, she is an open book.
“I'm probably loving (golf) now more than ever,” Stark said with a giant smile. “I just told my caddie, ‘I love this day.’ He said he has to call my mom and ask what happened to Maja. She's not throwing clubs. She's being kind of fun. Not too mad. Yeah, I don't know what has happened. I don't know.”
That was only partially a joke. At the CME Group Tour Championship, the end of a long stretch of tournament golf on both the Ladies European Tour and the LPGA Tour, Stark was so exhausted and frustrated that she gave a couple of clubs the old heave-ho – not full-blown helicopter throws, but more like the aggressive way you would drop a hot plate. Look online and you can find plenty of examples of her releasing a club at the top of her follow-through only to catch it again before it hits the ground.
Even when she’s winning, as she did five times on the LET in a 12-month stretch from September 2021 to the middle of August last year, the eyes look like they could drill holes in the back of your head.
The last of those five wins, the ISPS Handa World Invitational, was co-sanctioned with the LPGA Tour, which gave Stark full Membership on both tours and the ability set her schedule the way she wants.
“It's great to have this category and finally know that there is nowhere else to move really,” she said. “On the European Tour I had to schedule in LPGA qualifiers and stuff like that, and then switching schedules, too, when I got this category. So it's very nice. I'm still trying not to do too much. That's difficult. But I think I have a good schedule set now.”
She likely won’t be able to defend all her LET titles this year. And given the globe-trotting nature of the Tour, especially this year with the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown and the Solheim Cup, she wants to continue loving the game the same way she does now.
“I am playing on the LET next, the one in Morocco, and then I do (the LPGA Tour events in) Thailand, Singapore, two weeks off, Arizona, California, and then two weeks again,” she said. “So I have a pretty good rest-to-tournament ratio.”
That is important. She gets emotional when she’s tired. Prior to her first LPGA Tour win in Ireland, Stark had a pretty miserable finish at Muirfield where she shot 79 on Sunday at the AIG Women’s Open. She wept so hard the next day that her ribs locked up. Her mental coach thought she was in such a bad spot that she just needed to relax and hang out with friends.
Six days after that, her life changed forever with an LPGA Tour victory.
Now, at age 23 and happier than ever, Stark is looking for a good finish at Lake Nona to propel her to even greater goals.
“Obviously, make the Solheim Cup,” she said when asked what her new goals were for 2023, although she’d have to break a hip not to qualify for Suzann Pettersen’s team. “I also want to be top 20 on the Rolex Rankings. And (win) a major.”
Lofty goals, but not unrealistic. With an intensity and work ethic that has everyone who sees her standing a little straighter, Maja Stark is a player to watch this weekend and throughout 2023.