IGF President Annika Sorenstam happy to see Olympic golf becoming ‘a big deal’

Growing up in Sweden, Annika Sorenstam remembers being a big fan of the Winter Olympics – particularly dare-devil sports like luge, skeleton and ski jumping.

“It was just something I’m just not used to seeing,” Sorenstam said. “It’s fun to watch.”

Golf was her sport, and Sorenstam grew up to be one of the LPGA’s most decorated players, someone who has left a legacy for aspiring young female golfers around the world.

But the 53-year-old Sorenstam never got to play in the Olympics. Two days after picking up her 72nd LPGA victory, she announced she would retire at the end of the 2008 season, eight years before the sport she loves so much returned to the program as part of the Summer Games.

She has become a guiding force in the Olympic movement, however, first as a global ambassador alongside Jack Nicklaus, and currently as president of the International Golf Federation. Sorenstam has high hopes for the competition, which will be held outside Paris in August at Le Golf National – which also hosts the Open de France on the DP World Tour and was site of the 2018 Ryder Cup.

“I think that it takes a little while for golf in the Olympics to manifest for people to realize that this is a big deal,” she said. “We have the momentum on our side. So, I think coming to Europe and coming to Paris is going to make a difference. I think the excitement is there.

“… We’re playing Le Golf National. It's known for different championships … so, I know some players will be excited. They've already played the course. But I also believe that golf in France is kind of on an upswing. Consider Victor Perez, but also Celine Boutier from on the LPGA that she has done so well.

“I think that they're going to draw some more attention and obviously bring some more fans into the competition,” she added. “So, yeah, I think 2024 in Paris is going to be a great one.”

Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro after an absence of 112 years. The looming Zika virus kept several of the top players away that year, though, and when the 2020 Games rolled around in Tokyo, the world was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, no fans could attend.

In the years since the decision was made to reinstate golf as an Olympic sport, Sorenstam has seen an uptick in interest – and funding – among national federations eager to showcase their best players before the estimated 3.2 billion viewers around the world.

At the most recent Summer Games in Tokyo, a total of 40 different countries were represented in the men’s and women’s competitions. Golfers from five countries medaled – the only double dip came from the United States, where Xander Schauffele and Nelly Korda both won gold.

And there was a wild seven-man playoff for the bronze that included Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Team USA’s Collin Morikawa, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey of Great Britain, Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz, Chile’s Mito Pereira and the eventual medalist, C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei.

McIlroy, a former world No. 1, had been somewhat ambivalent about the Olympics when golf’s return to the Games was announced. But he later said he had never tried so hard to finish third.

Sorenstam thinks McIlroy’s interest was heightened after talking with friends like Justin Rose, who won the gold medal in 2016, and Ricky Fowler, who tied for 37th that year but had the Olympic rings tattooed on his right forearm to commemorate the experience.

“When he heard and saw the success of Justin Rose or Rickie Fowler, I think he changed heart,” Sorenstam said. “… And he just realized that this is really important. And to be part of something, I think it's almost bigger than the game in itself because we've had the Olympics for so long and to be able for these athletes to interact with other athletes.

“And I think also that the Olympics, I mean, I remember growing up watching it, Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, and it's just Olympics resonates with people. And for us to be part of that I think is just really important. And therefore, I think the seed has been planted, and I think people are starting to recognize that this is really a good thing for the game of golf.”

As is so often the case in sports, though, there were stories that transcended what happened on the golf course or on the track or in the swimming pool. One prime example for Sorenstam was the pride of a nation that lifted up India’s Aditi Ashok, who finished one stroke out of medal contention in Japan.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to send his congratulations on X (formerly Twitter): “Well played @aditigolf! You have shown tremendous skill and resolve during #Tokyo2020. A medal was narrowly missed but you’ve gone farther than any Indian and blazed a trail. Best wishes for your future endeavours.” India’s President Ram Nath Kovind also sent a similar message.

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“I think the Olympics has shown that it's a great platform to increase not just participation or leadership, but also the competition for men and women around the world,” Sorenstam said. “And if you think of it from an athlete's perspective, there's some stories that are just really compelling that we saw in the first two, whether it was Aditi Ashok from India, she didn't medal, but she got recognized I think by one of the highest, maybe the Prime Minister, which is a really cool story. And then also C.T. Pan … from Chinese Taipei, he did really well (winning bronze).

“And those are countries that, again, they're just kind of new to the game of golf. So, I think stories like that is just attractive and inspirational and for a lot of things.”

The host country for the upcoming Games has been experiencing a golfing renaissance of late. And the emergence over the last year of France’s Celine Boutier, Mattieu Pavon and Victor Perez on the world stage is sure to heighten the excitement in France come August.

Boutier is coming off a standout 2023 campaign when she won four times, including The Amundi Evian Championship on home soil. The 30-year-old Duke grad now has six wins – including one major – on the LPGA and five on the Ladies European Tour.

“I think it's instrumental for a French player to have the success because it brings attention, it brings stories, it brings excitement,” Sorenstam said. “And she will represent France obviously in a very good way. But I think it's good for the host country to have a star that's really eyeing the medal.”

Pavon and Perez could certainly be in the mix, too. Both are playing their first full season on the PGA TOUR after earning their cards through the DP World Tour Top 10. Perez came to the United States with three DP World Tour wins. And Pavon, who has one victory on the DP World Tour, earned his TOUR first win at the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year.

Added Sorenstam: “I think 2024 in Paris is going to be a great one.”