ORLANDO, Fla. – Annika Sorenstam walked over to the rope line by the 15th hole for a quick group hug with her kids. Ava, 11, told mom about an English test that didn’t go to well. That got Sorenstam fired up until Ava explained that she was allowed to take a mulligan on the exam.
Ava, the creative entrepreneur, made 15 glittery Go Annika! shirts for friends and family this week. She was admittedly more into the clothes than the golf. Nine-year-old Will, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get to out of school, racing down the rough to watch his legendary mother.
As Sorenstam, 50, moved to the 16th tee, which sits adjacent to the family home, her longtime caddie Terry McNamara walked out to catch the action. McNamara, who now works for Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, was in charge of dinner Thursday evening.
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“I actually believe, as good as her swing is,” said McNamara, “that if she just had some time, which I doubt she’ll ever put the time in again, I think she could still be competitive. I mean mentally, there’s probably never been a player as mentally strong, and there’s probably not been a player whose wedge game was as good as hers.”
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Sorenstam meditated Thursday morning to try to find some inner strength and peace. She’d been nervous about this round for days now, and that only intensified as she walked to the first tee and spotted so many friends and family. Roughly 150 people were on hand to watch Sorenstam tee it up on the LPGA for the first time in 4,479 days.
Sorenstam’s goal coming into the week was to shoot around even par or 1 under. She’ll have work to do on Friday to make the cut (70 and ties) after carding a 3-over 75 that really came down to a surprising triple-bogey seven on the par-4 fifth.
Sorenstam’s tee shot came to rest underneath the gate of a fence surrounding the backyard of a house on the left side of No. 5. The rules official on the scene, Dan Maselli, said her ball stayed in bounds “by a dimple.” When she took an unplayable, Maselli reminded her that drops are now taken from down around the knee.
“Thanks for reminding me,” said Sorenstam.
She escaped trouble only to three-putt, saying she can’t remember the last time she carded a triple.
“A lot of tentative shots out there,” said Sorenstam. “I’m not really sure what I’m afraid of, but I think just going out there and sometimes protecting it, which I’m not really used to doing. But then again, I have nothing to protect.
“Just funny how the mind works.”
Sorenstam’s lone birdie of the day came on the 14th when she hit a wedge from 95 yards to tap-in range. A family friend broke out in an “Annika is back” tune that he’d practiced over at their house at a recent dinner. Sorenstam apologized that it had taken so long to give him something to sing about.
The shots are shorter and less consistent these days. It’s a stressful kind of golf, but Sorenstam, who plans to make her debut in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open this summer, still had fun out there with her husband on the bag and so many from her inner-circle outside the ropes.
Sorenstam’s parents, Tom and Gunilla, also live in Lake Nona. In fact, Annika isn’t the only Sorenstam with her name on plaques inside the clubhouse. Gunilla is a former ladies club champion who still plays nine holes every once in a while when her back allows.
Sorenstam tees off at 8 a.m. ET on Friday alongside fellow Swedes Anna Nordqvist and Madelene Sagstrom, who made sure to ask for picture after Thurday’s round.
“Her wedge game is so stupidly good still,” said Sagstrom.
Sorenstam knows she’ll need to be more aggressive in the second round to have a chance at playing over the weekend. She’s currently one shot out of the cutline. Slow play doesn’t help either. She told her group on the ninth hole that the hardest part about getting older is feeling the need to hit balls while waiting to keep the body from tightening up.
“Before I felt like I’ve always had another gear,” said Sorenstam. “I’ve always had another gear. I don’t even know if I have a single gear now. So you just do what you do.”