ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Annika Sorenstam smiled and began shaking her head before she heard the rest of the question, already aware what others might think about one of the LPGA Tour’s most dominant players returning to competition after 12 years.
She is among the 120 players in the field this week for the Gainbridge LPGA.
Next week she goes back to being a wife, mother and businesswoman.
“This is not a comeback. It’s an appearance. And I’m just thrilled about that,” Sorenstam said Wednesday at Lake Nona, her home course for 21 years and a big reason she decided to play for the first time since she retired in 2008.
Her appearance is no less amazing.
Sorenstam turned 50 in October. She announced her retirement when she was 37 and was coming off consecutive victories of what turned out to be the last of her 72 victories on the LPGA Tour.
Her youngest child, 9-year-old Will, has the golf bug and that brings Sorenstam out to the course more often. She has played with her father in the PNC Championship the last two years. Diamond Resorts supports her foundation, so she played in the celebrity division of the LPGA Tour season opener last month.
And then the Gainbridge LPGA moved from South Florida to Lake Nona, and Sorenstam already was contemplating a return to competition at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.
“I figured I just need some tournament rounds,” she said. “I need some experience back inside the ropes and focusing on 18 holes, making putts, no mulligans and no gimmes.”
It’s a treat for players who only know Sorenstam for her Hall of Fame career. She has the career Grand Slam, and she became known on a first-name basis in golf when she boldly tried to compete against the men in 2003 at Colonial, the first woman in 45 years to play on the PGA Tour.
Some 40 players in the field know her for the Annika Foundation that supports amateur golf around the world. They all played her tournaments, and now they get to compete against her, at least for one week.
One of them is Gabriela Ruffels, the former U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who played in the Annika Intercollegiate when she was at Southern California.
“She’s the greatest of all time, and it’s really cool to see her walking around,” Ruffels said. “I saw her on the range a couple days ago. I was kind of star-struck, to be honest.”
Sorenstam knows better than to have expectations, high or low. No matter how much she’s been practicing in recent weeks for this appearance, she cannot simply flip the switch. She had a swing that was as repeatable as any, with that famous early head turn, that it came from relentless work when golf was her priority.
Gone is the hunger to win.
“Shooting around par I think will be a good thing for me,” said Sorenstam, the only player to shoot 59 on the LPGA. “I’m going to obviously do the best I can. I think the biggest difference nowadays is I’m just not as consistent as I was. Nowadays I’m good for 14 holes, and I don’t know what’s coming the other four. It’s a little more surprise on the course.”
She has a house near the 16th tee at Lake Nona, and Sorenstam jokes that it’s the only part of the course she knows. The members at Lake Nona mostly see her at pickleball or in the clubhouse for Easter brunch or a Thanksgiving feast.
Now it’s about golf at the highest level. Lake Nona, home to several PGA and LPGA players, hosted the Solheim Cup in 1990 and previously had the Tavistock Cup, matches between tour members from Lake Nona and Isleworth.
But it’s only one week.
“If it wasn’t Lake Nona, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I’m in a different place in my life. The LPGA has been a huge part in my life, in my heart and wonderful memories. But that’s not why I’m here, to create more.”
Even so, she takes her golf seriously with a scorecard in hand.
Sorenstam did not say how she would prepare for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open in July. That’s right around the time of the Olympics, and Sorenstam recently was appointed to a ceremonial role of president of the International Golf Federation, which overseas Olympic golf. She said the executive director of IGF, Antony Scanlon, was in favor of her playing.