Who's That Girl?
Ever since Golf Channel's "Morning Drive" program debuted in January 2011, it seems like that question has been asked again and again. Holly Sonders, 26, formerly Holly Niederkohr (Sonders is a stage name), was an accomplished college golfer who shelved her driver for a microphone after graduating from Michigan State in 2009. She has since become one of golf's most recognizable television personalities. You might have caught her on one of the network's programs or perhaps been impressed with her play in a PGA Tour pro-am.
Among her accolades: two American Junior Golf Association wins, reaching the round of 16 at the 2007 Women's Western Amateur and helping Michigan State win the 2007 Big Ten Championship.
Fitness and athletics always have been a part of Sonders' life. She played baseball and basketball on boys teams until high school, where she was a four-year starting point guard on the girls basketball team. In college, gym work helped her gain 15 pounds of muscle (she's now 5-7, 120 pounds) and drive the ball 260 yards. But after major knee surgery, she turned her attention to broadcasting.
How hard was it to give up competitive golf?
That was a sad time, to be 20, 21 years old and know your dream of playing professionally is over. After the surgery, I couldn't walk for many, many months my junior year at MSU. I came back from that but could never play the same again.
What kind of golfer are you?
I play from the reds now, but if I would tee it up from like 6,400 to 6,500 yards, I'd be about a 3- or a 4-handicap. I played with Natalie Gulbis the other day, and I was 30 yards behind her off the tee. At 150 yards, I'm hitting an easy 6-iron.
How did you end up at the Golf Channel?
I got the contact info for Joe Riley [senior director of news & talk] from someone else and badgered him via email and phone until he finally called me back. I was just a 22-year-old kid out of college. He said "You need to do live TV. You need to improve and learn the biz." I went to Little Rock and did hard news—homicides, tornadoes, all kinds of stuff. I did that for almost a year before Joe brought me in for an interview. They took a chance on me, and the rest is history.
Did you have anything to do with the show's name?
No. I'm not sure who ultimately decided on "Morning Drive." But other names were thrown around like Dew Sweepers. I'm glad that didn't stick.
When the show started, the hosts were behind a desk, but you sat on a stool away from them and were usually wearing short dresses and heels. Were you comfortable with that?
Some people would comment, "You're objectifying her." There was just no other place to put me, honestly. The cameras were in the wall. I dress the way I dress because style is very important to me. I love being a girl. You can be a pit-bull competitor. You can want to kick people's asses in every sport, but you can still be feminine and still be sexy.
Why did you stick with golf versus your other sports?
My mom, Sandy, has been club champion for 22 years. She got me started when I was 6. There comes a time when you need to choose where you put your time in, and for me it was golf. Best decision I ever made.
And now you plan to be a golf instructor?
That's a big goal, to become a certified PGA of America teaching professional. I would love to be able to communicate to our audience that way.
You're also the host of "Playing Lessons." Have you surprised any tour pros with your game?
I filmed one with Ian Poulter, the ultimate match player. We had a bunker contest—hardest shot in golf, a 35-yarder to a pin on a ridge. He knocked it to three feet. I went next and almost holed it. He said on-air, "Wow, Holly Sonders can officially play golf." And because he lost, he had to make his famous Ryder Cup crazy-eyes face and do a fist pump. That was my request.
Tommy Gainey got you to wear two gloves for his playing lesson.
Yes, and when he showed me how to grip it and swing like he does, I hit a cameraman on our crew. Sorry!
You've been getting up around 3 or 4 a.m. to go to work. How do you have the energy to work out?
I go to the gym four days a week, get a good sweat. I can't run because I don't have a meniscus. I also suffer from scoliosis. So for me, it's a lot of body-weight stuff. I don't touch weights anymore. My arms get muscular very quickly. Even carrying luggage. I don't want huge arms.
Your workout goes beyond yoga poses, though.
Plenty of squats and lunges. I worked with a trainer before, Karen Palacios-Jansen. I have the shortest torso in the world.
Sitting down, I'm shorter than anyone. Then we stand up, and I'm taller than anybody. I don't want to do crunches or anything that makes me shorter, but I do 500 ab exercises three times a week, usually standing up. Lengthening while strengthening.
What's it like to become a golf celebrity so quickly?
One time last year I was on the beach and had a bikini top on. I'm still thinking I'm a kid and no one is paying attention. I was getting into a car and a guy shouts, "Holly Sonders!" That's when it hit me. My private life is over.
You're comfortable with the attention?
Yes; I love people. But it's the celebrities or people I don't expect who come up to me: "Oh my God! 'Morning Drive!' " Like Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on TV. So many people love the game and are fanatics, and it's cool to see.
Has a tour pro ever asked you out?
No one has asked me out seriously. A joking thing? Sure. This is a classy sport, and the people I've run across seem family oriented. I put the vibe out there that I'm not interested. They realize very quickly that it's not going to happen.
Not to go all Facebook on you, but what is your relationship status?
That stuff is private, and I like to keep it private.
Anything else you'd like to share?
One of my teeth is fake. If you can't tell, I'm not telling you which one it is. It's a very prominent tooth. Got knocked out in the second grade.