Annika Sorenstam lives on the 16th hole at Lake Nona, where the LPGA’s Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions takes place this week. Most of the celebrities in this week’s field treat coming to Orlando, as the tournament title suggests, like a vacation. But for Sorenstam and several other players in the field – such as former No. 1 Lydia Ko – it’s a backyard affair.
“I spoke to John Smoltz and he said this is the best-conditioned golf course he’s ever seen,” said a proud Sorenstam, “and the guy has played a lot of courses.”
MLB’s Smoltz also happens to be a two-time champion of this event. Actor Jack Wagner welcomed Nona’s difficult rough, calling it a “real golf course.” The test will be particularly challenging for the celebrities and a stark contrast to a resort course like Tranquilo.
“This is not a member’s rough, put it that way,” said Sorenstam. “They’ve let it grow a little bit, and the greens are fantastic. They are getting a little firmer.
“It’s all about you got to put the ball in the right places. It’s important to hit it far, but I also think it’s more important to hit it straight here. And not just straight. There are certain places you got to know a little bit where to go.”
Danielle Kang, who lost in a playoff to Jessica Korda last year at the TOC at Tranquilo, said she believes there’s definitely a home-course advantage here for those in the field who double as members, like Nasa Hataoka, Ariya Jutanugarn, Sorenstam, and Ko.
When the Gainbridge LPGA was contested last February, the first LPGA event since the inaugural Solheim Cup held at Nona, Nelly Korda hoisted the trophy and Sorenstam made headlines by making the cut in her first tour start since 2008.
Since then, Sorenstam has competed in several events and even won a major, the 3rd U.S. Senior Women’s Open. The hefty trophy recently left the house for a Callaway event but is back on property. While cleaning out her golf bag earlier this week, she came across the money clip and yardage book from that memorable week at Brooklawn.
“(Husband) Mike actually made a big canvas out of the family photo and the trophy,” said Sorenstam, “and it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door, so I’m reminded of it every day.”
With the modified Stableford scoring format, Sorenstam knows her steady game might need to crank toward aggressive this week in order to vie for the title.
“The yardage, I think, it says 6,600 yards,” she said. “It’s a little more than I prefer, so I’m going to be hitting some longer clubs into the green.
“So it’s a fine line going for the flag with a longer club than maybe an 8- or 9-iron. I have to find a balance, but I need points obviously. One point here isn’t going to do much. I need to be out there, because I know a lot of celebrities are going to have shorter irons to the par 5s especially, and make a lot of birdies. I might try to be more, a little more aggressive and then we’ll see what happens.”
While a field of 29 players (winners from the past two seasons) will vie for $1.5 million, 50 celebrities will compete for a $500,000 purse.
Several players in the field have struck up friendships in recent years with stars from around the sports world. Gaby Lopez, the 2020 champion, said Marcus Allen called her hotel room last year to wish her luck the rest of the season.
“I changed numbers and he didn’t know that and didn’t have my last number,” said Lopez. “It was just really special for him to take the time to call me.”
Kang plays with country singer Lee Brice every year at the TOC and loves his on-course vibes.
“He’s like the best hype man ever,” said Kang, “so I don’t really care if he’s shooting 100 next to me.”
Last year’s champion, Jessica Korda, requested to play with NFL player Larry Fitzgerald in 2021 and wound up shooting 60 alongside him.
“I have said this before,” said Sorenstam, “I think that they are an impressive group of celebrities. Many of them are like golf pros, the way they swing, the way they play, and they can hit it. They can really hit it.”
Here’s a complete list of the celebrities in this week’s field:
Wells Adams, Marcus Allen, Maurice Allen, Bret Baier, Brian Baumgartner, Josh Beckett, Lee Brice, Clay Buchholz, Joe Carter, Vince Carter, Roger Clemens, Mark DeRosa, Kira Dixon, Josh Donaldson, Mardy Fish, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Flaskey, Colt Ford, Kyle Fuller, Evan Geiselman, Tom Glavine, Ben Higgins, Steel Lafferty, Jon Lester, Ryan Longwell, Derek Lowe, Greg Maddux, Brian McCann, Kevin Millar, Mark Mulder, Blair O’Neal, Patrick Peterson, Chad Pfeifer, A.J. Pierzynski, Dan Plesac, Alfonso Ribeiro, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Jeremy Roenick, Sterling Sharpe, Alan Smith, John Smoltz, Annika Sorenstam, James “Bubba” Stewart, Larry the Cable Guy, Brian Urlacher, Jack Wagner, Tim Wakefield, Michael Waltrip, Deron Williams, Charles Woodson
Original posted at golfweek.usatoday.com