The golf great talks about the game’s future, flying privately and her new life as an entrepreneur.
The most dominant female golfer in history is multifaceted. One minute, Annika Sorenstam is recounting the business acumen that helped make her the only female golfer to pass the $20 million mark in career earnings. The next, she’s talking about the need for better nutrition for children. That’s typical, as she’s known for both her caring nature and her desire to crush competitors.
Sorenstam captured the world’s attention with a record 89 tournament wins, including 72 LPGA victories, as well as a record eight Rolex Player of the Year Awards. People call her “Ms. 59,” because she turned in the only sub-60 round in LPGA history. During her 15-year career, the Swedish-born athlete was instrumental in increasing the popularity of women’s golf. After Sorenstam competed in a PGA event, LPGA tournaments saw a 44 percent increase in television viewers and a 14 percent increase in attendance. Now, she contributes regularly on the Golf Channel.
Though retired from professional competition since 2008, Sorenstam remains a powerful force in the sport. Her businesses includes the Annika Academy, a boutique-style golf school on the grounds of the Reunion Resort near Orlando, Florida; the Annika Collection with Cutter & Buck, offering women’s golf wear; Annika Course Design, which has completed golf courses in such countries as South Korea, China and South Africa; and Annika Financial Group, which caters to the special needs of professional athletes. Her charity, Annika Foundation, teaches children about fitness and nutrition and conducts events for aspiring junior golfers.
Sitting down with us recently at Annika Academy, Sorenstam discussed life off of the LPGA tour, the need for mentoring the next generation, the unexpected challenges of business and how golf’s popularity might continue to grow.
Why did you quit competing professionally to become an entrepreneur?
In 2007, I hurt my neck and back, mostly from just over-practicing or over-playing. I was out for a few months, and I started realizing there are some other things in life that I would enjoy doing. I literally woke up one morning and said 2008 is going to be my last year.
I was in the middle of my last season, and of course there was a lot of juggling with competing and business development. I’d be on the course, and I’d be thinking about different things, and my caddy said, “I know you are ready because normally you’d be focused, and now you’re thinking about your logo.”
So you developed several businesses pretty quickly?
I didn’t want to have a year or two of not knowing what to do, because that’s not my personality. I gathered a group of friends of mine who were successful. I respected their businesses,so I asked them if they would be my advisory board. I asked, “What do I do, and how do I get there?” We started full gear in 2009.
The country was in a recession when you launched your brand. How did that affect you?
We started in 2008 when there was the worst economic environment. If we’d had a crystal ball we might not have done it then, but you take things as they come and you just adjust to the cards you’ve been dealt. It was tough early on. Keep in mind, I came from being the best [female] golfer in the world. I’m used to having success.
Did your drive to win help you as much in the business world as it did in golf tournaments?
I’m extremely competitive. I might not show it on my sleeve as much as some people, but when it came to starting a business I just transferred my energy and my competitive drive into having a successful academy. I analyze a lot of things just like I would do in my golf game. I try to figure out why we’re having problems; then I find a strategy and execute the things we need to do.
What are the differences between competing in golf and running a golf academy?
As a golfer you have one individual and one employee, which is your caddy, and now all of a sudden you have more and you have to deal with all of that. You’ve got a team and you’ve got to share your vision and share the workload. It was a wakeup call in many ways for me. We stayed true to our values and what we stand for, and maybe we’ve had to deliver it in a little bit of a different way, but it’s fun.
Which part of your career has been more difficult?
I probably work harder today. I worked hard [as a golf pro], but having a family with two kids, there’s a lot of juggling. It’s been fun, but it’s been challenging and tough.
What prompted you to start using business jets?
I won the U.S. Open in 1995 and all of a sudden the requests started coming in to be in many places and they were often on short notice, so the events would send a jet. Jim Colbert, a PGA player, suggested business jets to me when I lived in Palm Springs, but he was 55 and he had made millions and I thought, “That’s easy for you to say!” He said, “Trust me, you’re investing for the future.” In 1996, I heard of NetJets and realized that it was something that I could do on my own that would be efficient.
Do you now agree with Colbert about using business jets?
Yes. I’m a lot more productive, I’m rested, and there is no hassle. I’m more on time, too. I can work on the plane, so you can prepare in a peaceful environment. Everybody says it’s so expensive, but think of the outcome. If you can extend your career by a year or two or maybe five years, think of that.
How often do you fly privately?
I have 50 hours a year with NetJets, and then, when we do events and they send a private plane, there are other companies that I fly with, too.
What determines whether you fly commercially or privately for a particular trip?
Time is the most important factor for me. I call business jets my time machine. I want to be away as little as possible from my kids. If I can spend the night at home, then I will fly home late after a dinner function. It all depends on the location and the time it takes to get there. If I can’t fly direct and it’d take me all day to travel, then I take a private jet.
At first I thought it was a luxury. I’m budget conscious, and in the beginning I felt guilty. Then I realized how much more I can do in a week than I would if I had to fly commercially.
One example is that I had played in a golf tournament and I was really exhausted, but I had another tournament to play in the next week. I flew home on Sunday and relaxed, and I took a jet to the next tournament on Thursday night. I ended up winning the tournament because I was so well rested. It was costly for me to get there, but I ended up making a bigger check so I made more money. That’s when it hit: I don’t have to feel guilty anymore.
As a teen, you moved from Sweden to the University of Arizona, a decision you’ve called the turning point in your life. How did that impact you?
It was golf all year around, playing with the best players in the world at a young age. So that really challenged me. It’s a big step for any teenager to move thousands of miles away to another country. You have to have the courage to give it a try—otherwise you’ll never know. You start to take some responsibility for your life.
So you really grew up, leaving your parents to live in a new country?
Yes, but my mom always said it’s just as far to go there as it is to return, meaning I could always come back. My parents were not pushy—they weren’t the ones you’d be ashamed of, screaming from the side of the fairway.
Did you get your work ethic from your family?
My parents worked very hard, but they didn’t have their own business. I wanted to do it on my own, and looking back, I think that the drive has to come from yourself. Parents can push, but it’s not going to work until you encourage your kids and then they run with the ball on their own. My parents did a good job there.
Now you’re trying to pass along the same encouragement to the next generation through the Annika Foundation?
I feel lucky to be here, to have the life that I have. Growing up, I didn’t really have that many people that I could talk to. I didn’t have a mentor. When you see young kids nowadays, there are so many decisions to make, so for me it’s fun to share a little bit of the wealth and knowledge that I have and to grow the game and inspire the next generation. I feel good about giving back to the community, giving somebody life, or hope, or a smile.
You worked with Jack Nicklaus to add golf to the Olympics in 2016. Where do you think the game is heading?
I’m a believer that to grow the game, we have to do it on a global basis. Other countries don’t even know what golf is, and they’ll only hear about it if it’s an Olympic sport, because when sports are in the Olympics, all of a sudden governments or federations start supporting them.
There is opportunity to grow the game, then?
The Olympics are in Brazil, and it’s a big country and they’ve got only four courses. In South America, golf is really not in their culture; it’s soccer and polo and other sports. So I think it’ll be interesting [to have golf in the Olympics there]. I do know that China is pumping money into their team now. I’m excited to see where the game goes from here.
NAME: Annika Sorenstam
BORN: Oct. 9, 1970, in Stockholm, Sweden
OCCUPATION: Retired golf pro, owner of several golf-related businesses
ACHIEVEMENTS: Winner of 89 pro tournaments, more than any other female golfer. Career earnings exceed $22 million, also more than any other female golfer. Winner of a record eight Rolex Player of the Year awards. In 2003, became first woman to play in a PGA tour since 1945.
TRANSPORTATION: NetJets fractional share in a Citation Encore
EDUCATION: Attended University of Arizona.
PERSONAL: Married to Mike McGee, managing director for the Annika brands. The couple live in Orlando, Florida, with their daughter Ava, born 2009, and son William, born 2011.
ANNIKA SORENSTAM'S FRACTIONAL JET SHARE
Model: Cessna Citation Encore
Year produced: 2000-2009
Variable cost/hour for latest model: $2,190
Seating (exec/max): 7/10
Range: 1,712 nm
Max cruise speed: 436 kt
Max take-off weight: 16,830 lb
Cost new: N.A.
Cost range (used): $2.6–$5 million
Sources: Conklin & de Decker Aircraft Cost Evaluator and Aircraft Performance Comparator, Vref Aircraft Value Reference
Assumptions: Jet fuel, $7.16/gal. Variable cost includes fuel, routine maintenance reserves and misc. expenses. Range is with four passengers (200 lb each including baggage), NBAA IFR fuel reserve 200 nm alternate.
Kimberly Button is a Florida-based freelance writer.