ORLANDO, Fla. – As Annika Sorenstam waited to putt on the 72nd hole Sunday at the Gainbridge LPGA, she watched as the names scrolled by on the electronic leaderboard. Hers was at the bottom.
But Sorenstam’s return to the LPGA Tour was never about the score. It wasn’t about whether or not she made the cut. The fact that she did make the cut was a bonus, not just for Sorenstam but for golf fans who got to see her play the weekend for the first time in 13 years. That was good for the game. And that’s what Sorenstam’s return was about.
“I'm quite tired, I'm exhausted. I gave it all,” Sorenstam after a final-round 76. “The more I think about it, and once it sinks in, I think it's going to be a big smile on my face.”
All the reasons behind Sorenstam’s one-off return to the LPGA may never fully be known. She said she wanted to use the week to get some experience being back inside the ropes, in preparation for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which she hopes to play this summer. Intended or not, Sorenstam’s return will have an impact that’s far reaching – beyond just the opportunity to get some reps.
Before Sorenstam began her third round at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, she gave a signed golf ball to an 8-year-old fan, Caitlyn, who was standing alongside the ropes. Members of Lake Nona and player guests were permitted on-site during the week. Caitlyn’s smile was covered by the bright pink mask she wore across her face, but her eyes told the story. Caitlyn is a golfer, too, and the moment that Sorenstam created, with that small gesture, will be with her all her life. That’s what Sorenstam’s return was about.
“If I can help somebody else live their dream,” Sorenstam said on Sunday, as she fought back tears. “I think that's just more meaningful than anything.”
Caitlin wasn’t the only one inspired by Sorenstam’s return. The women who compete on the LPGA Tour were once young girls, too, and many of them were inspired to first pick up a club after watching the 10-time major champion. At Lake Nona, they relished the opportunity to compete alongside the woman they watched on television.
“I admire her so much,” said fellow Swede Anna Nordqvist, who was grouped with Sorenstam for the first two rounds. “This is going to be definitely one the more memorable rounds in my career.”
Most of the players who are currently on tour didn’t get a chance to compete against Sorenstam in her prime. Nelly Korda, the winner of this week’s Gainbridge LPGA, was 10 years old when Sorenstam retired in 2008. Sorenstam’s return was a re-introduction of sorts to the current players, to get to know not just the legend but the person.
“That means a lot,” Sorenstam said, with tears welling up in her eyes, when she learned of the players’ positive reaction to her return. “I guess warms my heart quite a bit.”
The week also afforded Sorenstam the chance to get to know the next generation in a new way. One-third of the field at the Gainbridge LPGA came through Annika Foundation events as amateurs, including Kristen Gillman, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, who played side-by-side with Sorenstam on Saturday. Sorenstam had a chance to get to know the amateurs-turned-professionals who benefitted from her foundation. That’s what Sorenstam’s return was about.
“I work with so many of them and golf still has a big part in my life,” Sorenstam said. “To give back to the game is something I enjoy doing.”
Perhaps Sorenstam also came back because she wanted to be able to show her children, Ava and Will, what it was like when their mom once competed on tour. They were both born after she retired from the professional game. To celebrate her mom’s return, Ava handmade t-shirts for family and friends to wear to show their support. And each night, after the round, Will would go hole-by-hole with his mom to lay out a plan for the next day. Their precious reactions to their mom’s performance, beaming smiles, and walks with mom between holes, would be reason enough for Sorenstam to give this all another try.
“I want them to see when you have a passion for something and also what it takes to be good at something,” Sorenstam said about her children watching her throughout the week. “They can find their passion. Knowing you have to put in the work to be successful. That's what it takes.”
The energy surrounding Sorenstam’s return was undeniable, on-site among the players, the members and the media alike. And, it was certainly felt by junior golfers like Caitlyn, who walked with Annika at Lake Nona while other young girls watched from home. That’s good for the game. And that’s what Sorenstam’s return was about.