SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — In her U.S. Women’s Open practice round Tuesday, Annika Sorenstam played with 24-year-old Megan Khang. On the 15th hole at Pine Needles, after hours in the hot North Carolina sun, the World Golf Hall of Famer hit a good shot, but felt her whole body stiffen up as the ball landed. Moments later, Kang ripped a solid shot of her own.
"Finally," Kang said, "I'm getting loose."
If anything tells the story of what has changed for Sorenstam since the last time she competed in a major championship 14 years ago, this might be it.
Now 51, the 72-time LPGA winner and 10-time major champ—three of them U.S. Women’s Opens—opted to return for her 16th Open start but first since 2008 for a few reasons. One is the simple fact that she earned an exemption by winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Open last summer. Additionally, Pine Needles is where the second of three Women’s Open wins came, in 1996, when she lapped the field six strokes, and the memories are still special.
She's also here for her family; her two children, Ava and Will, have never seen her compete in an LPGA major (though both watched her win at last summer’s U.S. Senior Women's Open). And even her husband, Mike McGee, didn't become her husband until after her retirement.
Finally, there's the influence of Peggy Kirk Bell, the LPGA pioneer who was instrumental in bringing the U.S. Women's Open to Pine Needles in the 1990s, and struck up a strong friendship with Sorenstam during her playing days. (Kirk Bell, who was also a pilot and would fly to various tour stops, passed away in 2016 at 95.)
"You know, Peggy was here then," Sorenstam said of her win in '96, "and she screamed, 'Heineken' when I finished … not knowing my name or remembering or being able to say my name, so I became Heineken."
Needless to say, Sorenstam’s age—and the stiffness of her muscles—aren't the only change since she won in 1996. That year, the championship’s entire purse was $1.2 million. This year, the winner alone will take home $1.8 million.
Sorenstam is trying to prepare like the old days, too. Earlier on Tuesday, Lydia Ko joked about seeing Annika ramp up the practice recently at their home in Lake Nona.
"I can't hide," Sorenstam jokes. "And I've seen her too, let's put it that way. No, I've seen a few of them out there...I have been practicing. My coach, Henry [Reis], came to town last week and wanted to fine-tune it a little bit. I know to play well here I have to really max out my game."
Having retired from competitive golf in 2008, Sorenstam made a return to the LPGA ahead of last summer’s Senior Women’s Open for the Gainbridge in February 2021. She made the cut, she flagged over the weekend, finishing 79-76 to end in 74th place. Since then, she's been grinding on the range, but lately she's made sure to transition into playing too (from the blue tees, to simulate the difficulty she'll encounter this week), knowing too well the difference between practicing this sport and actually competing.
"My goal is obviously to play the best I can," Sorenstam said. "I know what I'm capable of. I can hit fairways and greens. I can make putts. That's my goal this week. Obviously, I'm in a different position now than in '96 where I was probably one of the longest off the tees and would hit last into the greens. Now it's the reverse."
After playing a practice round on Monday night, Sorenstam took a side trip to a strange destination—the maintenance shed. She knew that Pine Needles had brought on a large, mostly female crew for the championship, and she wanted to stop by, chat with some of them and say thank you.
Everywhere she looks this week, Sorenstam will be able to see the growth in her sport that was inspired at least in part by her own career. But Ko is one of the few who knows how seriously she's taking this event, and on Tuesday morning she had a message for the rest of the field:
"Be careful—the GOAT is coming up."