First Person

How an up-and-coming LPGA star embraced the challenges of learning the game in Sweden

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Atsushi Tomura

Madelene Sagstrom smiles after hitting a tee shot on the first tee as she represents Sweden in the 2018 UL International Crown.

Have you ever experienced a proper winter storm? In Sweden, you can get it all—wind, ice and snow. In my hometown of Enkoping, it’s not as harsh as the northern part of the country, but we can still get some unpleasant conditions in December.

Call me crazy, but growing up at my home course, Enkoping Golf Club, I loved practicing in that type of weather.

See, where I’m from in Sweden, we have around six precious hours of daylight during the winter. Cold temperatures? You can sell those for cheap. But daylight is scarce. When I was a teen, I learned that quickly. So when I came home for Christmas break from—et’s say it together now—Ljungbyheds Gymnasieskola, the golf academy high school in the south of Sweden, a blustery winter day wasn’t cramping my style. No chance. Before the sun rose at 8:45, I’d pack my golf bag with 30 ugly scuffed golf balls, throw on two pairs of socks, my warmest pair of boots, rain pants, a sweater or two, and take the 10-minute walk down the dark, wet path to our driving range.

Merry Christmas.

In Sweden, it’s a different kind of grind. Wearing enough layers to barely make a shoulder turn, taking a cut (and risking hitting it thin!), and then trudging to hunt for the balls in a few inches of snow doesn’t sound like the idyllic winter getaway. But I truly loved it. In those quiet walks, with my face stinging, hands numb and feet raw, I wouldn’t be daydreaming of the hot cup of tea and warm fire a few minutes away. I wouldn’t even think of my takeaway, or ball position, or shoulder turn.

I’d think about 15-year-old Annika Sorenstam, about how she’d work on her game in any weather condition. At this time, Annika had just retired, finishing the best career in women’s golf history. I wanted to be everything she embodied. Even though my game wasn’t—and still isn’t—close to hers, I was going to outwork everyone to give myself a chance at greatness.

It’s kind of ironic, I think, arriving at that mindset. Because for us Swedes, it usually starts with a negative premise: There is no future in our home country, at least in golf. When I was 13, I told my mom that I was going to attend a golf academy at 15, move to America for university (did that at LSU), and then play on the LPGA Tour. I’m proud of that little girl for being so clear in what she wanted. In Sweden, hard work and humility are ingrained in you. I think you need both—with a dash of confidence—to achieve your dreams.

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Atsushi Tomura

Swedish golfers Pernilla Lindberg, Madelene Sagstrom, Anna Norqvist and Caroline Hedwall line up for the national anthem prior playing the United States at the 2018 UL International Crown.

Fast forward to this January, when I won for the first time on the LPGA Tour at the Gainbridge LPGA. As I made the sunny drive home from Boca Raton, Fla., I thought about those wintry days practicing in Sweden. I thought about my teenage years when I was riding my bike in the pouring rain, my golf bag swung around my back, dodging cars on the busy freeway just to go practice. I thought about waking up at 5 a.m. to beat the greenskeeper to the course and sneaking into a greenside bunker to practice my sand game because there was no short-game area.

When I finally arrived home, I opened my garage and saw my hitting net, the same kind of net that I’d use in the dead of winter in Sweden, when the sun sets at 3 p.m. The sight brought me back to the days when I’d hit bucket after bucket into a net in my high school gym, not caring what the ball was doing off the clubface. I learned to focus on fundamentals through that process, which was the same mentality I had hitting balls during those cold mornings at Enkoping Golf Club.

My story isn’t unique. We all have dreams. My country has taught me and other young Swedes how to persist. We’ll always be playing for that little girl or boy spending hours practicing in the rain, darkness or freezing temperatures.

It’s the only way we know how.

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Madelene Sagstrom, 27, is in her fourth season on the LPGA Tour. In January, the former All-American at LSU and three-time winner on the Symetra Tour won her first LPGA title, the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Raton.