While Ernie Els was rallying to win his second British Open, this hacker was having the golf experience of a lifetime. Sometimes Lady Luck smiles on us in ways that defy all reason and logic.
About two weeks ago I received a cryptic email from an executive I recently met at a CEO conference. The email said, “I want to introduce you to Allison whom I have copied. She lives in Park City." Because I work from Park City part of the summer, I receive these introductions regularly and quickly filed it away for follow up after I returned from my August vacation. Allison quickly responded to the email saying, "Jane if you could call me today, I would appreciate it.”
Wondering if this was someone else who needed career advice, I sighed and returned the call. Not only did Allison not need job counseling but was a top executive with a global financial service firm and had a jaw-dropping proposition for me. “Jane, I have been invited to a day of golf with Annika Sorenstam and a small group of women executives. I can bring a guest. None of my women clients play golf, and our mutual contact, Neal, said you are a golf fanatic. Would you like to join me?”
When people meet a celebrity they try to establish a common connection. I found myself telling Sorenstam, “Annika, one of my clients is the brother of your next door neighbor.”
For you non-golfers, Annika Sorenstam has done for women’s golf what Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have done for men’s golf. Before stepping away from competitive golf at the end of the 2008 season, she won 90 international tournaments as a professional. She has won 72 official LPGA tournaments, including 10 majors and 18 other tournaments internationally, and she tops the LPGA's career money list.
She has been highly successful in her post golf life, too, starting a charitable foundation and a golf school, and serving as part-time commentator on the Golf Channel. She has also been very conscious of her brand and one of the first women athletes to use social media (Twitter and her website) effectively to that purpose.
A regular gal
Two weeks later I was at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay Hotel & Golf Resort, a little nervous about what to expect. My new best friend Allison and I walked into the dining room and saw that our group was small—no more than 20 people. Annika walked up to us and introduced herself. She is a little shorter than I expected, and has a relaxed manner and twinkle in her eye. All of us were both charmed and awed by her.
When people meet a celebrity they try to establish a common connection. I found myself telling Sorenstam, “Annika, one of my clients is the brother of your next door neighbor.” Others stretched even further by saying, “Annika, my dad lives in Ponte Vedra (an area 150 miles away from Annika’s hometown of Orlando), or “Annika, I once visited Sweden" (her home country).
She is such a regular person that she made each person feel immediately connected with her for life. I found myself thinking, “How does she do this on a regular basis?”
Our day with Annika included being divided into groups of seven and spending 30 minutes each with her swing coach (they have worked together since she was 12), her fitness trainer and two instructors from her Annika Golf Academy. But before we started, Annika stood in front of our group with the ocean in the background and talked about how she warmed up for a round of golf, hitting golf balls as she did. “Please feel free to ask me any questions as I warm up.”
The questions begin
At first we were quiet but after she told a few jokes about pro-am partners who warm up by screeching to the parking lot with five minutes to spare and then doing a couple of deep knee bends in the seconds before tee off, the ice was broken.
As we watched her hit soaring 7-irons over a ravine that landed within five feet of each other, I asked her if she hit the ball as far as she did when she retired. No, she said a little wistfully. “In 2003, I was the longest hitter on the tour, but to maintain that requires timing, which comes from hours of practice. With two small kids, my foundation and golf schools, I just don’t have the time.”
She told me that if I would putt with my shoulders rather than my hands, it would make a huge difference. I tried another putt and sunk a 20 footer.
From her pros I learned how to chip off the green with a 7-iron. From her fitness coach I learned that as we age we do everything slower and the key is to not just walk on a treadmill but to do sprints. We all should work on full-body integration, where no muscles are worked in isolation. From her swing coach I learned my golf grip was all wrong and within two minutes was hitting the ball much further.
Then it was time to work with Annika on the putting green. She has a gift of making even the worst golfer feel only he or she is only one swing tip away from greatness. She told me that if I would putt with my shoulders rather than my hands, it would make a huge difference. I tried another putt and sunk a 20 footer. She laughed, gave me a hand slap and for a moment I felt like I was tour ready.
Two rounds of golf
In the afternoon we got the opportunity to play two holes of golf with Annika. By that time she had made everyone feel so comfortable that it almost seemed like a Saturday afternoon of golf with a new friend joining us for a couple of holes. Almost. But it was still Annika.
I gave my drive every ounce of oomph I had and prayed. It actually ended up further than Annika’s. However, she played from the men’s tees and used a 3-wood rather than a driver. But for this best-ball hole, we did use my ball, something I will never forget.
By this time we people were sharing pics of their children, giving Annika child-rearing advice and asking for pictures and autographs. It is truly a gift to be able to make people feel that this is the first time anyone had asked her for a photograph or autograph. She signed hundreds of golf caps for charity events, children, clients and anyone else. She never said no.
After our round of golf we had cocktails and another question-and-answer with Annika. This time there was no hesitancy.
Someone asked if kids were getting into professional golf too early. Annika said yes, and that if someone was too young to rent a car or a hotel room, perhaps they were too young to play on tour.
What about Tiger?
“Tiger and I used to practice together but I have not communicated with him since he hit a fire hydrant and his life fell apart.” Annika in her diplomatic way said that Tiger needed to get real and connect with his many fans but that he was the greatest golfer ever.
I asked her “How many times do you go out on a Sunday afternoon and play a fun round of golf with your husband?”
She laughed and made the sign of zero, saying that just like auto mechanics don’t fix cars for fun, she has enough golf with her clinics.
Someone asked if kids were getting into professional golf too early. Annika said yes, and that if someone was too young to rent a car or a hotel room, perhaps they were too young to play on tour. She cautioned parents who are steering their kids into golf to let it be fun for them and that it was important for kids to play team sports as well. She did not start playing golf until age 12.
Finally, someone asked her if she missed having a pro career. She said that no, she accomplished her goals and is in a different phase of her life with her husband and two young children.
Though Annika had been working with us for 12 hours, she continued to chat, sign autographs. Unlike some stars, she did not depart until the last person left with a hug and thank you from her. She gave us the impression she would have stayed until midnight if there were still autographs to be signed and questions to be asked.
As my friend Allison and I enjoyed the setting sun at Half Moon Bay and relived every minute of the day, I tweeted “a phenomenal day with Annika Sorenstam. You were phenomenal.”
Five minutes later, I received a tweet back, “Thank you. Hope to see you soon.”