I experienced golf’s historic return to the Rio Olympics listening to Annika Sorenstam, probably the greatest female golfer of my generation, as she described the competition from the commentator’s booth of the NBC Golf Channel. (I was watching and listening on my home television in Florida.) In my opinion, no television announcer – female or male – has ever done a better job covering a golf tournament. But although Rio was the setting, what I heard was beyond the Olympics. Listening to Annika was a unique golf lesson in itself that in some way will probably affect every future round of golf I play and watch.
Annika not only observed and described the players’ decisions, shots, and visible emotions, but also what she thought they did right and sometimes what they did wrong. And sometimes she described what she had experienced in that same situation in the many years and in over 90 international tournaments that she played competitive golf. With a notebook and pencil by my side in front of my TV, I watched four days of women’s Olympic golf.
I listened to Annika and jotted down the comments that I wanted to remember. The notes below may not be her exact words because sometimes I just couldn’t write fast enough. And, I decided not to check my notes against replays of the four rounds.
What you read below reflects what – “in the moment” – I heard listening to Annika and wanted to remember and pass along. Annika’s comments are in italics for easy identification and reading. My occasional comments are not in bold.
“The first hole is not easy.” Annika made this comment often as even seasoned players like Lydia Ko appeared more nervous than usual on the first tee especially on the first day.
“The players are not just playing for themselves. It’s different here. They have lots on their shoulders: Their country but also their coaches and family. This has been a long haul. You can see the tension in their eyes – this is more than a Tour major.”
“Players bring different backgrounds and skills to the sport which affects their style and decision-making. Some players are very athletic – like Gerina Piller who did not take up golf until she was fifteen. Others are like Lydia Ko who started playing golf as a very young girl and only played golf.”
“Lydia has been born for this moment.” Comment Annika made as Lydia sunk a critical putt. What a powerful observation!
“Caddies have a role. They calm a player down. They provide confidence. When they have been with a player for a while, they know what their player needs”. One conversation I heard between Lydia and her caddie on an approach shot: Lydia to her caddie: “83 yards but plays like 79” – they are talking about four yards that may make a difference!
“But… players have to learn their own ‘self-talk’ – how to stay calm without caddies to help them. They have to learn how to trust themselves.”
“Attitude is so important. Players have to stick with their plan and skills.”
“Keep discipline and focus – have to know your game – stick to pre-shot routines—avoid distractions – learn to get over a bad shot.”
“One bogey is not the end of the world.”
“Lexi’s long game is so good — she should just practice wedges.”
“Charley Hull needs to put the ball back in her stance because she wants to hit the ball first, but can’t come down too hard because then the ball will hit the top of the club face and will go high but not as far.” And Charley Hull’s ball went too high and not far enough! Annika gave many bunker lessons in her coverage.
“She has to keep her weight on her right side in that uphill lie.” Another lesson from Annika.
“I always like Inbee’s swing.” Inbee Park is among a whole generation of young women who were influenced by the recently retired Korean golfer, Se Ri Pak.
“Inbee is in good form.” Annika said this in one of the early rounds! Park’s gold medal confirmed it.
“Players in these Olympics are writing their name on a new world course.” Annika had good things to say about this new course as players discovered the strategy that Gil Hanse, the architect, with assistance from LPGA’s Amy Alcott, had built into it.
“Brooke Henderson – seems to have some trouble with her hands on the putter.” Brooke did not have her usual great putting stroke. I think Annika noticed something different about the way Brooke was readjusting her hands on the putter.
“That was a courageous shot of Lydia’s out of the bunker.” Annika often referred to the “emotions” the players brought to their shots. I think she remembers those emotions – like courage – from her days of professional golf which gives her that unique frame of reference as a commentator. Or, maybe women are just more comfortable talking about their emotions, which is why listening to Annika was so enjoyable?
“When players are under pressure, we see their weakness. That’s where they will learn what requires more practice.” This is one of my favorite lessons from Annika. It inspires me – as just a recreational bogey golfer – to practice what’s hard and not just what comes easy.
“Gerina’s loss will make her stronger next time she tees it up. She needs more wedge-shot practice.” Gerina Piller USA was on emotional overload during her final stretch having done well in earlier rounds. What pressure she must have felt! And then we saw that pressure release in a tearful post-round interview. But as Annika predicted, Gerina will practice those wedges and come back to win on another day.
“There are more crowds than I expected. Golf is new to Brazil and the gallery doesn’t always know the etiquette, for example about clicking cameras.” On the final round, the galleries were full – tickets all sold out.
“Shanshan Feng’s bronze medal victory will put China on the map of women’s golf. That will mean more Chinese government support of the game.” In the U.S., the government generally does not directly subsidize golf (except for municipal courses) to the extent it is supported in Korea and now perhaps, China and now India also. See my article “Memories, Lessons Learned and a Challenge for Augusta National”.
“It’s starting to feel like match play for the women coming down the finishing stretch on this final day – five or six players close.” The same observation could have made on the final stretch of the men’s competition as Justin Rose of Great Britain and Henrik Stenson of Sweden competed for the Gold. Annika’s comment is particularly interesting because there were criticisms of the stroke-play format for these Olympics. Some critics thought match play would be a more exciting format. And others are suggesting that female/male teams would be an exciting Olympic option. The International Golf Federation (the IGF) has a few years to figure out the format for the Olympic Golf Competition in Tokyo in 2020.
“The 18th hole is a great strategic finishing hole. Gil Hanse, the course architect, wanted to see players playing positive golf on the 18th hole.” On the fourth day of the women’s competition, the 18th hole was the easiest hole on the course so players could go for it! But there were strategic bunkers guarding the 18th green with the stick towards the back of the green. That made that last stretch very exciting. Shanshan Feng added additional drama to the 18th by missing the green on approach, which opened the door for Ko to earn the Silver Medal with a great final putt.
“Top three will earn the medals, but 4 through 60 will always be “Olympians.” Congratulations to the International Golf Federation for designing a qualifying system for the Olympics that allowed 34 countries and 60 women golfers to be Olympians forever.
“Inbee Park is a real ambassador for the game. Now she wants to retire and start a family. People will ask “Why retire?” I understand that because I also retired from [competitive golf] when there was nothing else I could add to that part of my career.” Annika may have retired from one part of golf — Tour competition, but she has not retired from the game of golf.
Inbee Park’s retirement may send a conflicting message to young Korean girls who want to follow in the footsteps of Korea’s legendary Se Ri Pak who retired last March at the age of 38 with regrets admitting that “I took care of my golf… I didn’t take care of myself.”
“I was always against the naysayers about these Olympics.” So was I, Annika.
MORE ABOUT ANNIKA.
Annika was very involved in promoting the re-introduction of golf in the Rio Olympic Games. She maintains a teaching Academy and is an advocate for teaching leadership to young girls through golf. Annika will captain the Europen Solheim Cup Team in 2017 in Des Moines, Iowa, that will play against Team USA captained by Juli Inkster. Annika is also now involved in designing golf courses and has a line of golf clothing for women. To learn more about Annika’s career see http://annikasorenstam.com/about/.
Annika is tough and disciplined on the golf course. But, if you ask her about her family, don’t be surprised to hear a very emotional answer. I have been in the audience when as she spoke about her children and how much they mean to her, she choked up… and so did most of us listening to her. For a wonderful, touching view of Annika as a golfer and a mother, read Letter to My Daughter.
Nancy Berkley is an expert on women’s golf and junior-girls golf in the U.S. A special interest of hers is encouraging business women to enjoy golf with colleagues and clients. Nancy is a member of the World Golf Foundation Women’s Committee and a member of the National Golf Foundation. Nancy is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Rutgers Law School and has a degree from the Professional Management Program of Harvard Business School.
Describing herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential, Nancy shares news about women’s golf – along with her opinions on berkleygolfconsulting.com and nancyberkley.com. You can also follow Nancy on Facebook and Twitter.