SOUTHERN PINES – As a Hall of Famer and 10-time major champion, Annika Sorenstam has nothing left to prove on the golf course.
An eight-time LPGA Player of the Year and the only woman to shoot 59, Sorenstam won 72 LPGA events and competed in a men’s PGA tournament during her 16-year career.
She thought she was done with competitive golf in 2008. Then, after a 13-year break, she returned and won the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
That victory opened up an opportunity to compete in the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, the site of her dominant win in 1996.
In just over a month, the 51-year-old Sorenstam will return to Southern Pines for her first U.S. Women’s Open appearance since she retired nearly 14 years ago.
During a conversation with reporters Tuesday at media day ahead of the championship, scheduled for June 2-5, Sorenstam highlighted several reasons for her return.
“Obviously, honored to get an invite. That is a nice gesture and I wanted to appreciate that,” Sorenstam said.
“Peggy (Kirk Bell) was next, coming here. And then, my kids wanted me to play. They’re like, ‘C’mon, Mommy.’ Also, I’m working with these young girls and many of them — these young ladies — have played in the Annika Invitational the last few years.
“To have them out there to continue to support and inspire, you’ve got to be in the mix to talk about what it’s like, so it keeps me a little more relevant when I mentor some of these girls. Now I can do that a bit more with ease.”
During her time away from professional golf, Sorenstam has formed a favorite foursome that includes her husband and caddie, Mike McGee, and their two children, 11-year-old Will and 12-year-old Ava.
“This isn’t necessarily about me trying to do a comeback, it was more about the family,” she said.
Prior to her eight-stroke win at the Senior Open last August, Sorenstam’s kids had only seen YouTube clips of her at the peak of her powers on the golf course. In June, they’ll get to see their mother compete against the best of the best.
“It’s pretty neat, especially our son who is very into sports. He knows every statistic there is. For him to just see it and live it is a big deal. He’s really been my practicing partner. We’re out there together hitting balls. I’m a righty, he’s a lefty, so I’ll toss a bucket in the middle and we can hit,” Sorenstam said.
“I want to inspire him, too. I want him to know you don’t wake up and there’s a trophy at the door. You have to put in the work. I think they see that. … I’m hoping that this will feed him and he can live his dream and do whatever he wants.
“The same thing with our daughter. It’s like when you have a passion you gotta do it, but you gotta put in the time. That’s hopefully the message I’m sending to, not only my kids but, hopefully, people in general who have some kind of hobby and want to pursue it. It’s never too late to continue.”
The pull of Pine Needles
Would Sorenstam have played in the U.S. Women’s Open this year if it had been at any other site?
“No, I would not have,” she said. “I’m pretty sure about that.”
A quarter-century after a six-stroke victory at Pine Needles, Sorenstam reflected on the place that allowed her the chance to form a lasting bond with the late Peggy Kirk Bell, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 95.
“Peggy couldn’t pronounce my name, so she called me ‘Heineken’ for some reason,” Sorenstam said. “I had to explain to her that I wasn’t from Germany and I don’t drink beer. That was our internal joke the whole time I knew Peggy.”
A World Golf Hall of Fame inductee and longtime Pine Needles owner, Bell continued to grow closer with Sorenstam every year.
Sorenstam, who felt she owed it to the Bell family and the USGA to compete in this year’s championship, hasn’t forgotten some of those shared experiences.
“Mrs. Bell would drive up in a cart and she would park next to me and watch me hit balls and have a smart comment, and then she would leave and come back and I would meet her for lunch and she took me into her office,” she recalled.
“I didn’t know that much about her the first time I met her but she was showing me all these photos on the wall and she would fly around in a plane and I thought to myself, ‘She’s one tough cookie.’ “
Inspiring the next generation
After leaving Pine Needles on Tuesday afternoon, Sorenstam made her way to Sunrise Theater for the premiere of “Becoming Annika,” a documentary that will debut May 10 on Golf Channel.
At the conclusion of the film, an all-female production that highlights Sorenstam’s career, she addressed a row of young girls in the crowd.
“I think that dreams do come true, if you put your mind to it and you put your effort into it. My dad told me a long time ago that there are no shortcuts to success,” she said.
“Golf turned out to be my vehicle, my story, and that’s why I give back to the ANNIKA Foundation. I want to inspire the next generation of young girls, just like yourself.”
Sorenstam’s ANNIKA Foundation, which she started in 2007 near the end of her career, focuses on supporting girls’ and women’s golf around the globe. A return to the major championship stage offers Sorenstam another opportunity to inspire that generation.
“I’ll never forget Will looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, Mommy, Jessica and Nelly Korda’s ages together is what you are.’ That really didn’t make it any better, but obviously the honor of being invited here is very special,” she said.
“Being a past champion here is very special and my relationship with Peggy and her family. The last 14 years has really been trying to inspire the next generation of girls. I figured if I tell them to get out of the box and try different things, and explore and live your dream, then I’ve got to do that too. You can’t just say and not do. So I think we just decided to let’s do this.”
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Why Annika Sorenstam is returning to U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles