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Beyond the game: A legend and fellow major champs find wins off the course

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Published in Golf
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 02:00

Annika Sorenstam celebrated shooting the lowest round in LPGA Tour history by cooking fish soup for dinner with her sister, Charlotta. What was in the soup? Charlotta couldn’t remember and didn’t care. The evening was a blur after Annika made history that day by carding a 59 at the 2001 Standard Register Ping at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, Arizona.

Sorenstam’s record-setting round wasn't the topic of conversation that night as the 10-time major champion dined with her sister. By then, the Swede had spent a decade in partnership with Vision54, comprised of performance coaches Pia Nilson and Lynn Marriott, who helped Sorenstam learn how to separate her identity as one of the greatest golfers of all time from who she was off the golf course.

“I feel it’s very important to find balance in life. Life cannot just be competition,” Sorenstam recently told GolfChannel.com. “When you are off, be off. Take a complete break and enjoy whatever your hobbies are.”

Sorenstam says she divided her time on tour into three modes: rest, tournament and practice. When she was in rest mode, working out or cooking were two of the hobbies Sorenstam enjoyed most. Whipping up dinner was one of the ways she escaped from the game and, despite the pressure that came with playing as the No. 1 player in the world, it was a disconnect that Sorenstam says she easily made.

For others, the separation hasn’t been so simple.

Jennifer Kupcho began playing golf at age 5. By the time she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, at 21, she’d been playing golf for nearly her entire life. She competed for Wake Forest, ascended to No. 1 in the amateur ranks, and earned LPGA Tour membership, which she took up after wrapping her college career.

At the same time, Kupcho wondered: Who am I as a person? What she had achieved on the golf course was so intertwined with her identity as a person that the frustration of hitting a duffed chip or a missed putt often resulted in an outward reaction that exposed her inner-demons. She needed an outlet from golf.

Nilsson and Mariott say players like Kupcho begin to realize that their singular role as a golfer is not sustainable as they reach their mid-20s, but by the same token, they often resist adding another role to their life because they believe it will impact their performance. Vision54 says they help players introduce a hobby to their lives through discussion and by sharing examples of other players' success. Once they’re open to taking on an additional activity, Vision54 recommends players do so gradually.

“All of us need a break from a ‘work role’ to recharge and be motivated,” Nilsson said. “It makes you better when you work. [It’s] the same for us as a coach, and anyone else, no matter [what] profession. Golf is what you do, and it’s not who you are.”

In 2020, Kupcho knew she needed to make some changes to improve her mindset as she adjusted to her first full season as a pro. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

The world was submerged in a pandemic that led the LPGA to take a three-month hiatus, forcing many players into isolation. Even when the tour returned in July 2020, few options were available due to COVID-19 protocols which limited players' activities to competing, practicing and sitting in their hotel room. How could Kupcho escape the game or her thoughts?

To fill the time, Kupcho began reading again, an activity she had abandoned upon leaving Wake Forest. She also began playing the video game "Fortnite" as a fun way to stay in touch with friends, instead of passively talking on the phone.

“Going from being a really serious golfer when I first came out on tour and getting upset over bad shots, doing those changes in 2020 helped me calm down,” Kupcho said last season.

Nilsson says in her team’s 30 years of coaching, they’ve never seen a player become successful by micro-focusing on their singular role as a golfer.

Vision54 has worked with several top-ranked players, including multiple world No. 1s, some of whom they say have no idea who they are as a person. The issue is many of the world’s best players have their identity entangled with performance, media, fans, and sponsors.

“They think if I only micro-focus for X-amount of years, that will make me most successful. After I am done playing, I can have other roles,” Nilsson said about players who have resisted enjoying other aspects of life. “They burn out, and they can become very unhealthy and feel that they are a good human as long as the performance is good. They can feel that others only like them when they play well.”

In addition to adopting a hobby, Vision54 also helps golfers adopt a role that allows them to simply be themselves. Nilsson says it's critical for players to identify who they would be if golf wasn’t an option.

“Either their golf performance tanks, or they are just not happy, healthy human beings,” Vision54 says in training documents designed for players’ support teams, which emphasize the importance of establishing that separate identity away from golf. “Who they are as a human being is always more important than their performance, and it’s the only way sustainable, great performance can happen."

Get to know four of the NCAA's best women players and find out how the keep from being overwhelmed by the game.

When Kupcho is at home in Arizona with her new husband, Jay Monahan, she says she practices for a few hours, and then does something else to avoid spending all her time at the golf course. She watches Netflix, plays "Fornite" and has embraced her new role as a wife. These changes have made Kupcho happier away from the game, and it’s bled into her performance on the golf course. In April, she notched her first tour win and first major title at the Chevron Championship.

“It's what we've been doing our whole life,” Kupcho said about golf. “I think it's really important to just be able to separate your life. Golf is not the only thing that defines you.”

Patty Tavatanakit, a major champion and pupil of Vision54, has been masterful at making this separation.

Tavatanakit was chasing Kupcho at the Chevron Championship in April. Even during a major week, she reiterated how important it is for her to get away from the game.

“I love doing nothing. Just lay around, watch Netflix, or go hang out with friends,” Tavatanakit said during the championship. “When I'm off the golf course, I don't like to think that I'm a golfer.”

The Wednesday of the season’s first major championship, Tavatanakit says she played the pro-am and then left the golf course. She knew her limitations and what she needed and it wasn’t to spend more time practicing.

“If I need to leave the golf course, I'll leave regardless of where I am,” Tavatanakit explained. “I just didn't feel like being here. That's what works best for me, just knowing when to stop at this sport.”

Sorenstam knew when she needed to stop, too. In 2008, after 13 years and 72 wins on tour, Sorenstam retired from professional golf in order to focus on her new role as a mom.

Sorenstam decided she needed to make a clean break from her role as a golfer, and with her husband, Mike McGee, had two children, Will and Ava.

“I took my competitive fire and put it towards my foundation and inspiring the next generation of junior girls,” Sorenstam said about shifting into her role as a philanthropist after retiring from golf. “I have focused my efforts on growing the game and providing playing opportunities for girls around the world.”

As society and cultural norms have shifted, fewer players have followed Sorenstam’s path and instead maintain roles as both a full-time player and a parent. The Smuckers Child Development Center has afforded more players the opportunity to maintain both identities by providing daily childcare services at every tour stop.

“This generation wants to be able to do both, and there are more options to get support in doing it,” Nilsson said about the growing number of mothers on tour. “The childcare on tour is, as an example, so helpful for them. More women have other careers along with a family, so it’s not just happening in golf.”

Establishing an identity away from golf can be a challenge for women who have played the game as long as they can remember. Golf is what you do, and not who you are, is the mantra that Vision54 preaches to its players and one that has been adopted, with success, by major champions like Sorenstam, Kupcho and Tavatanakit. Whether it's cooking, playing video games, or simply learning when it's time to leave the golf course, these practices are essential for the women competing at the highest level to maintain a healthy balance in both golf and in life.

“I’m a different person off the golf course, and it's not related at all,” Kupcho said. “It really made me a happier person, in general.”

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