The IX: Golf Thursday with Sarah Kellam, February 25, 2021
Sarah's live with Annika Sorenstam on her return to the LPGA Tour — Interview with Abby Liebenthal — Must-click women's golf links
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Annika is just like us
ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s funny to think of your childhood heroes as an adult. Usually the people that you idolized in your youth as these bright, shiny, untouchables become much more lackluster with age. They lose their mysterious aura and the deep, sometimes dark depths of their humanity are brought out into the light to reveal that they are indeed just like us.
So my Thursday with Annika Sorenstam provided a welcome depth to my understanding of her, even as she returned to the LPGA Tour for the Gainbridge LPGA.
Tiger Woods’ traumatic car accident this week and the resulting expression of the worst-case scenario by many media outlets proves this point. For many, Tiger wasn’t just untouchable but rather completely unattainable in his prime and, in recent years, with the DUIs, invasive surgeries, and horrific injuries he’s come crashing down to our level, no longer God but returned to mere mortal. He’s still a hero to many, but a hero that seems much more approachable after all he’s been through.
Thinking of Woods’ near-death experience this week and how his fans have reacted to the shocking news, I wondered how Annika Sorenstam would be received at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA by her peers, a group comprised of so many young women who idolized the stoic Swede during her dominant LPGA Tour career, and how the greatest of all time’s famous on-course intensity would look after 13 years of competitive time off.
The same player is still there, attacking pins and draining putts in the practice round with ease, but you can tell that this week’s tournament is markedly different for her in so many ways. She assured everyone in her press conference for the event that she wouldn’t be returning full time to professional play, but said that without her family and her Lake Nona Golf & Country Club community encouraging her to do so, she wouldn’t have teed it up.
“This is, again, not a comeback. It’s an appearance, and I’m just thrilled about that,” said Sorenstam. “My first initial thought was no, no. I’m done with LPGA. I’m not going to play. That’s really not where my level of golf is. But considering my plans for the summer and turning 50 in October, wanting to play the Women’s Senior Open, and I figured I just need some tournament rounds. I was really persuaded more from my family and my parents, our kids, and then neighbors and then members, and the pro here at Lake Nona said, Of course you’re going to play. So it was really a late addition and not something that was on my mind.”
But, there’s a striking difference between this Annika and the Annika of the early 2000s. She’s lighter, more concerned with her family, friends, and foundation than trying to play professional golf at the level that she used to, having so much fun this week with Mike on the bag you’ll be hard-pressed to find her without a smile on her face. Annika’s parents watched every shot of her pro-am on Wednesday, her father clapping for even the most mundane of shots and with so much pride for his daughter you could feel it oozing from his pores.
She has so many friends and fellow members out to support her, whether she shoots ten under or ten over this week, and you can tell she appreciates their presence. According to her, the Lake Nona members that know her personally don’t ever think of golf when they think of Annika Sorenstam and are just happy to watch their friend do what’s she’s so talented at.
“A lot of members have come out already, and they see me normally I’m playing pickleball or they might see us here for Easter brunch, Thanksgiving dinner. So that’s kind of how they associate me,” said Sorenstam. “They haven’t really seen me play. When I was living here and I was competing I always traveled around the world but they never saw me. So now they’re seeing me, and we have some friends coming out. For them I’m just a good friend. Some of them hardly knew I was a golfer.”
The laidback atmosphere seems to suit Annika quite well and it’s obvious that she is enjoying herself as much as everyone is enjoying watching her compete again. There’s no expectations, no pressure, just golf and I’m sure she’s relishing this experience.
One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the star power that Annika possesses. I’ve spoken to so many people this week that are so incredibly excited to see the GOAT back in action and it’s not lost on anyone that this is a special moment for the entire LPGA Tour, specifically and especially the players.
Lydia Ko is also a member at Lake Nona and hopes that Annika’s presence at the Gainbridge LPGA helps to elevate the tournament’s viewership this week and women’s golf as a whole with fans thrilled for her return to competition.
“It’s obviously great that Annika is playing this week,” said Ko. “I think it’s going to be a great hype for not only our tour, but women’s golf, people who really like to watch her. So I think it’s just going to be a great week.”
Gabriela Ruffels, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, is making her professional debut in Orlando and was admittedly in awe of the 10-time major champion.
“I think everyone wants to play with her this week. She’s the greatest of all-time, and it’s really cool to see her walking around. I saw her on the range a couple days ago. Yeah, I was kind of star struck, to be honest,” said the rookie in her Wednesday presser. “She came up to me this morning because I played in her Annika Intercollegiate at USC, so she came up and said hi and she was so awesome and I got a picture with her, so it was really cool.”
You can feel the electricity in the air when Sorenstam arrives at the putting green or driving range and, when she walks onto the first tee, every phone within twenty yards is trained on her every move, trying to commemorate the experience watching one of the greatest to ever play the game. There’s a tangible reverence you hear in the voices of the other players when they speak about her and even though they all want to win for their own benefit, I would bet that every single person in the field is rooting for the Swede to play well in her hometown event.
Annika though appears unbothered by the fanfare and is seemingly oblivious to the effect she has on people. She knows exactly what she means to the game of golf and how her foundation has impacted the lives of many young women that now compete on the LPGA Tour, but NEVER shows a lack of humility, still saying hello to those she doesn’t know outside of the ropes and engaging with the few spectators there are out on the course.
She’s just Annika. But this week, instead of Annika the golfer, she’s Annika the mom, the friend, the member, the philanthropist. She’s still a ten-time major winner, still one of the most talented to ever play the game, still awe-inspiring and lustrous and seemingly untouchable. But where many have come down to earth because of something negative, Annika has revealed her humanity through her willingness to strike up conversation with anyone. Through her dedication to her family. Through her participation in the mundane activities of life. She’s not untouchable or unattainable.
She’s human. Just like us.
This week in women’s golf
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Annika says her return to professional golf this week in Orlando “isn’t a comeback”. (via Golfweek)
Annika Sorenstam has Tiger Woods on her mind while playing at Lake Nona this week following his near-fatal car accident on Tuesday. (via Golfweek)
Annika is adamant that she isn’t making a comeback at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA. (via APNews.com)
Check out this interview with Annika about her return to LPGA Tour play. (via GolfChannel.com)
Madelene Sagstrom reveals that she has been sexually abused in a powerful video released by the LPGA Tour. (via Golfweek)
Madelene Sagstrom has shared her sexual assault story in the hopes that she can help others. (via LPGA.com)
After releasing her sexual assault story, Madelene Sagstrom turns her sights to defending at the Gainbridge LPGA this week. (via LPGA.com)
More on Madelene Sagstrom’s sexual assault story. (via Golf.com)
2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion Michelle Wie West speaks out against Rudy Giuliani’s crude comments about her on a podcast with Steve Bannon. (via Golfweek)
Rudy Giuliani’s comments about Michelle Wie West reveal that objectification of women is still an issue for even the world’s top golfers. (via GolfDigest.com)
More on Michelle Wie West’s response to the comments from Rudy Giuliani about her putting stance. (via GolfChannel.com)
Many have tweeted in support of her after Rudy Giuliani’s comments about Michelle Wie West on a recent podcast with Steve Bannon come out. (via Golfweek)
Yani Tseng is in the field at Lake Nona this week. (via APNews.com)
The LPGA Tour is back in action this week with the Gainbridge LPGA in Orlando. (via LPGA.com)
7 of the top 10 in the world are in the field at the Gainbridge LPGA. (via GolfChannel.com)
Sagstrom, Nordqvist, and Sorenstam tee it up together for the Gainbridge LPGA this week. (via Golfweek)
Sei Young Kim dominated in 2020 and is looking to do even better in the 2021 season. (via LPGA.com)
USC standout Ruffels is making her debut in Orlando this week at the Gainbridge LPGA. (via LPGA.com)
Gabi Ruffels makes her professional debut at the Gainbridge LPGA and couldn’t help but be starstruck when meeting Annika Sorenstam. (via Golfweek)
Bianca Pagdanganan won’t be in the field this week after missing out in Monday qualifying. (via GolfChannel.com)
The “big blue wall” at the ANA Inspiration will not be there for this year’s edition. (via Golfweek)
No fans will be allowed at the year’s first major tournament, the ANA Inspiration. (via Golfweek)
2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the ANA Inspiration, the first major tournament of the year. (via LPGA.com)
Kenyan golfer Serah Khanyereri will play college golf in New Jersey after being brought to the U.S. by The First Tee and the Africa Golf Program. (via Golfweek)
Beth Ann Nichols catches up with Dame Laura Davies in her latest Q&A. (via Golfweek)
U.S. Solheim Cup captain Pat Hurst will have 3 picks for her team at Inverness. (via Golfweek)
The Kia Classic is the latest event to announce it will not be allowing spectators in 2021. (via LPGA.com)
The LPGA Tour announced a new match play event to be played at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas. (via Golfweek)
A match play event is slated on the LPGA schedule this season and will be played at Shadow Creek. (via LPGA.com)
Our Five at The IX interviewee, Abby Liebenthal, also appeared in this edition of Golfweek’s Forward Press podcast this week. (via Golfweek)
Here are the eight LPGA and PGA professionals slated to compete in the 2021 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. (via LPGA.com)
The LPGA has another new marketing partner. This time it’s Zinus. (via LPGA.com)
The LPGA Tour will be partnered with a female-owned first aid company. (via LPGA.com)
Learn more about Johanna Gustavsson, an LET member. (via LadiesEuropeanTour.com)
Meet LET member Stephanie Kyriacou. (via LadiesEuropeanTour.com)
The Symetra Tour will be awarding invitations for events that highlight minorities for three tournaments this year. (via SymetraTour.com)
Check out this story on a group of women pushing to diversify golf in Arizona. (via AZCentral.com)
Baylor wins again even though they didn’t get to practice due to snow. (via Golfweek.com)
The LSU Tigers have a pair of sophomores leading the way in the 2021 season. (via Golfweek)
This collegiate player is choosing to tee it up in the ANA Inspiration over ANWA. (via Golfweek)
Check out Golfweek’s college golf blog to catch up on everything happening with your favorite teams. (via Golfweek)
WCGA polls have been released and Dallas Baptist University is on top for the Division II schools. (via Golfweek)
Carnegie Mellon is at the top for the Division III schools in the recently released WCGA polls. (via Golfweek)
Keiser University leads the way in the NAIA WCGA poll. (via Golfweek)
Tweets of the Week
Note: Sexual assault and objectification have no place in our society and these two incredible women that are standing up and speaking out about their personal experiences should be commended for their actions. I wanted to feature them both in our “Tweet of the Week” to celebrate their courage and strength and bring awareness to both of these important, critical issues.
Five at The IX: Abby Liebenthal, Fore the Ladies, Inc. Found and Senior Manager, U.S. Open Fan Engagement
How long have you worked in the golf industry? What have been your most gratifying and challenging moments during your career?
I have worked in the golf industry since I graduated from Indiana University in 2012. After internships with the American Junior Golf Association between my junior and senior years at IU, I was offered a full-time role and that kicked off my career in the sport.
Since the AJGA, I have worked for the Tiger Woods Foundation, Titleist, Imperial Headwear, and now preside at the United States Golf Association. My roles at these organizations were primarily marketing, public relations, and communications-based, which has evolved so much since 2012.
I cannot say that I’ve had a single most gratifying and challenging moment in my career, yet, but each role has led me to acquire a new skill or realize that I needed to move on to see another side of the business. However, there have certainly been moments that stick out. At the AJGA, I was able to watch the top junior golfers earn college scholarships and today, I see some of them on the LPGA and PGA Tour, living out their dreams. While I was working at the Tiger Woods Foundation, my eyes were opened to how golf can support initiatives outside the sport and make a difference for underserved communities across the nation.
I was challenged in my roles at Titleist and Imperial, because although these businesses are related to sport, the emphasis on supporting the bottom-line was out of my comfort zone coming from marketing in non-profit organizations. Funny enough, I always said I would not go back to school, but this challenge led to just that – earning my master’s degree in integrated marketing and communications at Northwestern. I have just celebrated my first year with the USGA, but I know that my time there will bring upon more learnings, so stay tuned.
Where did the idea for Fore the Ladies, Inc. come from? What do you consider to be your biggest achievement since beginning the organization?
I was the only girl in my group of friends growing up who played golf. I never thought much of it, as it was simply a family activity. This theme continued through college, but more of my friends wanted to at least try to hit golf balls and learn the game. These comments popped up throughout the years, increasing as we moved into our careers and opportunities to play were given and passed on during business outings.
Throughout my golf career, I have connected with so many women who simply do not know where to start when it comes to golf. They are not sure they will like the game, so they do not want to invest in lessons, clubs, apparel, and access to a course. I understand that sentiment. I would not purchase a membership to a cycle studio without trying first.
I was finding programs for junior female golfers, women in executive roles, or members of a country club, but there was a void for young professional women to learn about golf. I hosted my first Fore the Ladies Clinic as an attempt to make something for this group and we had 70 women show up! I was shocked but also realized that when you create the venue, women will come.
Fore the Ladies is creating opportunities to dip your toe into the sport. Women may walk away wanting to begin lessons, or golf might not be for them, but at least they get to make that decision, rather than being pushed away by barriers from the game. Not to shy away from the question again, but I think my greatest achievement with Fore the Ladies, Inc., is still to come.
In what ways does Fore the Ladies, Inc. foster female golf participation across the country? How can those of us who are already golfers encourage our fellow women to begin playing the game?
Although we’re a tiny organization, we’re trying our best to make the most impact we can across the country. Our flagship program, Fore the Ladies Clinics, introduces to women to golf in a non-intimidating way. What does this look like? A little bit of instruction (i.e. how to hold a golf club, how do you swing a club or putt) and a lot of music, socializing, and drinks if you so wish. These clinics try to remove all barriers to at least give golf a shot and allow women to decide if they want to continue this journey with the sport.
For women who are already playing the game, I know firsthand how hard it is to find others who want to play a round. One thing we have developed at Fore the Ladies is the FTL Tee Sheet, which is a directory that women can sign up for and search for playing partners in their area. Again, it’s small, but growing every day!
Aside from the Tee Sheet, we all need to get over that hump of deciding whether to invite someone to play a round. If you already have a playing partner, you’re in a good spot, but try to invite someone new every time. She does not have to play all nine or 18 holes, but at least you bought someone along for the ride who can continue to grow that network.
Say you begin with you and a friend. You each invite one additional person to join you and there is your foursome. Each week invite another person to the round who can act as a proxy if someone isn’t available or your foursome turns into two groups, then three and beyond. I know it sounds simpler than it is, but if you make playing golf one of your go-to activities, you’ll realize how much more you play.
Why is it so important for organizations like the one you’ve created to exist? Why is camaraderie such a key factor for women that are new to playing golf?
I think there is a strong sense of imposter syndrome in the game. But everyone belongs in our sport and organizations that welcome more people are critical to continuing growth. The reality is, there are still fewer women playing the game than men, so a sense of camaraderie is incredibly important. We have all heard that to improve a habit or activity, you have to practice. Well, practicing isn’t all that fun alone, especially if you’re the only woman in sight. I have found that when I pick up a new activity, it’s much more enjoyable with a buddy and the same goes for golf. It gives you a reason to come back and have something to look forward to with a friend.
You’ve recently begun hosting a podcast featuring women in both the golf and sports world and highlighting their experiences within their respective fields. Have you had a favorite guest so far? If so, who and why? Why is it so important to tell these women’s stories?
The Fore the Ladies podcast has been such a blast, albeit a challenge, to produce! I was inspired to start the podcast because I had seen other sports highlighting women working (and thriving) in their industries but hadn’t seen anything like it in golf. What started as written Q&As for the FTL website turned into a podcast and we’ve been running ever since.
It’s so hard to pick a favorite, but an interview that I reflect on a lot was with Amanda Balionis of CBS Sports. She shared that the moment she let go of worrying about her next career move is exactly when it all started to come into place. Look at her now! We see her almost every week on the PGA Tour broadcasts, she has covered The Masters and now has her own non-profit organization. Her perspective and presence come through beautifully in audio, making it one of my favorites!
I will continue to tell these stories as long as I possibly can because we need to inspire the next generation of professional women in sport. Whether you want to become a professional golfer or start your own golf apparel company, every journey to a career is unique and I hope to showcase that there isn’t only one path.