Annika Sorenstam contemplating a return to US Women’s Open

Annika Sorenstam, of Sweden, acknowledges the crowd after putting on the 18th green during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

NEW YORK — After 13 years in retirement, Annika Sorenstam returned to competition last year. She made the cut in the Gainbridge LPGA, playing only because it was her home course of Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida. And then she won the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

That victory earned her a spot in the U.S. Women’s Open this year, which is being played at Pine Needles Lodge in Southern Pines. That’s where she won her second straight Women’s Open in 1996, an eight-shot victory.

Will she play? Sorenstam called it a “big possibility.”

“Obviously, I’m flattered about that and it’s Pine Needles, good memories with Peggy Kirk Bell. She won’t be there this time around, but the place has a fond place in my heart,” Sorenstam said last week. “But it’s hard to go out there and play against these young players, so if I can just go out there and have a good time and not be so competitive … which is my biggest issue. I am so competitive, even though I don’t play as much.”

She said the objective would be to “go out there and relax and swing and see what happens.”

Long considered the biggest event in women’s golf, the U.S. Women’s Open recently announced that it will have prize money and future sites to match its reputation.

The U.S. Golf Association announced earlier the purse for the Open will nearly double this year to $10 million, by far the richest in women’s golf and challenging top prizes in all of women’s sports. The purse was $5.5 million when Yuka Saso won at Olympic Club last year.

Helping to make it possible was the USGA bringing on a presenting sponsor — Ohio-based PreMedica, a not-for-profit integrated health organization serving 28 states.

With ProMedica’s backing, the U.S. Women’s Open purse plans to increase to $11 million and eventually $12 million over the next five years.

Along with a massive jump in money, the USGA is sending the women to some of the classic U.S. Open designs that for decades have hosted the men. That list includes a return to Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2, along with Riviera, Oakland Hills, Merion, Inverness and Interlachen.

The USGA said Pinehurst would host the men’s and women’s Open in successive weeks in 2029, just as it did in a highly successful debut in 2014. Martin Kaymer won the U.S. Open, and Michelle Wie captured her first major at the U.S. Women’s Open the following week.

It’s the first major initiative by the USGA since Mike Whan, the former LPGA Tour commissioner, took over as CEO last summer.

“The USGA prides itself on conducting championships that not only provide an incredible stage for the athletes, but also give younger players something to dream about,” Whan said. “For more than 75 years, the U.S. Women’s Open has been the one that every little girl, in every country around the world, has dreamed of winning.”

He said the partnership with ProMedica helps make that happen. The health group also will be a marketing partner of the USGA, and its “ProMedica Impact Fund” will be the official charity of the Women’s Open. The fund is committed to raising more than $1 billion over eight years for programs geared toward improving individual and community health.

“We’ll push to change the game and what it means to young women worldwide in order to reach new heights every year,” Whan said.

The Women’s Open is June 2-5 at Pine Needles Lodge in North Carolina, and then it moves to Pebble Beach for the first time the following year. Pebble Beach was already on the schedule.

Pine Needles has a short but strong history of the Women’s Open, with a list of champions that include Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr.

Only once had it gone to Pinehurst — the back-to-back weeks in 2014 — and Pine Needles was among the venues that could be labeled as the courses where the women played the Open.

The announcement came two months after the LPGA Tour announced a 2022 schedule with 34 tournaments and higher purses. The U.S. Women’s Open increase pushes the total prize money for the year just over $90 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

By Moore County Staff

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