Annika Returns to Pine Needles, Where It All Began
The U.S. Women’s Open has been the very pulse of Annika Sorenstam’s World Golf Hall of Fame career. In 1995, the championship at The Broadmoor was the first of her 72 LPGA Tour victories, an auspicious introduction that was confirmed the next year with a repeat at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, where the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica returns this week.
In 2006, Sorenstam placed a perfect bookend on her major-championship record when she made the U.S. Women’s Open at Newport (R.I.) Country Club her 10th and final major. As an exclamation point to her U.S. Women’s Open career, her last shot in the championship was a holed 6-iron for eagle at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., in 2008.
Last year, Sorenstam returned to championship golf for the first time in 13 years and won the U.S. Senior Women’s Open by eight strokes at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., earning an exemption into this year’s U.S. Women’s Open.
Returning to the Sandhills of North Carolina is special for Sorenstam on several levels. For one, her victory here in 1996 proclaimed Sorenstam as the real deal and foreshadowed the greatness that was to come.
“It means a lot for me to go back to Pine Needles for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open,” Sorenstam said. “I have great memories of defending my title there in 1996. If my first U.S. Open put me on the map, I felt this one validated that win.”
And another importance of her presence this year is that, unlike that championship 26 years ago, her daughter Ava, 12, and son Will, 11, will be on hand to watch Mom play and her husband, Mike McGee, will be with her every step as her caddie. That journey begins at 8:50 a.m. on Thursday, off No. 9 in a group with 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu of the Republic of Korea and Ingrid Lindblad, an amateur from Sweden.
“It means everything to me to have Ava and Will there and to have Mike on the bag,” Sorenstam said. “I wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for them. This is really a family affair. We are a team. They provide such tremendous support, and it starts with Mike.”
There is yet another family tie to the site of her 1996 title.
“Mike’s mom, Jill, will be there to help with the kids,” said Sorenstam. “She worked at Peggy Kirk Bell’s school at Pine Needles for a while after college. We told the kids they will have never seen crowds like this at an LPGA event before. I tried to explain to them it’s not going to be like walking down the middle of the fairways in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.”
When Sorenstam won at Pine Needles in 1996, it appeared as if the stoic Swede had the perfect game and mentality to win the U.S. Women’s Open a half-dozen times. Both physically and emotionally, one word defines Sorenstam: Balance. Rarely is she out of balance either with her swing or her mental approach to the game. Those are perfect attributes for a USGA champion.
But among the things you can’t control in golf is the play of your opponents, and Sorenstam competed against a sterling array of players. Nine of the 12 U.S. Women’s Open Championships played from 1995, when Annika won her first, through 2006, when she won her third, were captured by players who are now in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Se Ri Pak won in 1998, Juli Inkster in 1999 and 2002, Karrie Webb in 2000 and 2001 and Meg Mallon in 2004. From 2001 through 2006, Sorenstam played 124 LPGA Tour events and won a remarkable 46 of them, including eight majors, in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest six-year runs in the history of golf. And still there were painful near-misses.
In 2002 at Prairie Dunes, Sorenstam finished second in the U.S. Women’s Open when Inkster closed with a 66. Annika was again second in 2004 at The Orchards when Mallon fashioned a final-round 65 to Sorenstam’s 67.
Sandwiched in between was 2003 at Pumpkin Ridge, where Sorenstam was one stroke out of the playoff won by Hilary Lunke over Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins. All those disappointments made Annika’s victory at Newport in 2006 even sweeter.
“The USGA has always been a very important part of my career,” Sorenstam said. “I’ve always felt the U.S. Open is the biggest event in the women’s game. That is still the case, especially with the massive purse increase thanks to ProMedica. To have won three of those means so much to me.”
If not for the fact the USGA added the U.S. Senior Women’s Open to its roster of championships in 2018, Sorenstam would not be here this week.
“The U.S. Senior Women’s Open was really icing on the cake,” she said. “I never thought of playing that when I stepped away because the tournament didn’t exist. To win there with the kids literally walking down the fairway with me and with Mike on the bag was like everything came full circle. That was probably as good as it gets.”
Staying competitively sharp is a challenge for Sorenstam, both because there are not many senior events for women professionals and because her business activities and family occupy so much time. Annika played one event on the LPGA Tour in 2021 – her first since 2008 – and made the cut. But when she teed it up in the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open, Sorenstam’s game – especially her iron play – was reminiscent of old.
“I have worked pretty hard on my game and in the gym most of this year,” Sorenstam said about her preparation for Pine Needles. “Henri [Reis, her coach since she was a teenager] even came to town this week to work for a few days. Of course, my hard work is all relative because it’s not like we’re taking things off my schedule. Family still comes first, then we have my foundation events and sponsors, and our businesses. So, I fit in something when I can each day.”
There will be one major difference this year for Sorenstam from when she won in 1996. Peggy Kirk Bell, who in the 1950s purchased and restored Pine Needles to its Donald Ross glory with her husband Warren and then pioneered golf instruction there, especially for women, passed away in 2016.
“I had a special relationship with Peggy,” Sorenstam said. “I met her when I was an amateur and she took me under her wing. She couldn’t pronounce Annika, so she called me Heineken. She was such a trailblazer. We will miss her [this] week, but I know she’ll be looking down smiling.”
There will be a lot of smiles for the thousands of fans on hand this week as the U.S. Women’s Open returns to Pine Needles: smiles for the memory of pioneering Peggy Kirk Bell, smiles for the return of Annika Sorenstam, and smiles from the Sorenstam family as yet another exclamation point will be added to one of golf’s most remarkable careers.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.
May 26, 2022
May 31, 2022