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Swedes bring international swing to LPGA tour

A gaggle of foreign players grace the greens of women's golf

Pro golfers grow up in Sweden, and then they get out.

It could be something about: a) Florida or Arizona weather, compared to living in northern Europe; b) not having to cross the Atlantic Ocean to play LPGA events; c) being undercard sports stars to hockey players (Peter Forsberg), skiers (Ingemar Stenmark), tennis players (Bjorn Borg) and assorted soccer figures; or d) a straight 57 percent tax bracket.

'All of the above' would be correct.

'You see any athlete in Sweden, and they're living in England, Monaco or the U.S.,' says Liselotte Neumann, the 37-year-old matriarch of Swedish women's golf. 'They don't stay there.'

The increasingly international LPGA Tour stops July 3-6 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club for the U.S. Women's Open. It won't be a long flight for the Swedes.

Eight of the 10 Swedish touring pros live year-round in the United States, seven in Florida or Arizona. The exceptions are Marlene Hedblom, a nonexempt player, and Catrin Nilsmark, who is moving back to Sweden to be Europe's Solheim Cup captain Ñ Sweden hosts the competition against the United States Ñ and to put her child in school.

Annika Sorenstam, the 45-time winner who has made $12 million on the LPGA Tour alone, owns homes in Orlando, Fla., and near Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. She grew up just outside Stockholm. Charlotta Sorenstam, who has grown tired of questions about her famous sister, lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Six of the Swedes on the tour attended U.S. universities. Sophie Gustafson, the only one to stay home for college, attended Aranasskolan and Komvuv University, home of the Fightin' É what, Pancakemakers?

The Koreans have the LPGA's largest foreign contingent Ñ 18, an influx influenced by Se Ri Pak. But the Swedes have the world's best golfer in Annika Sorenstam, and the girlfriend of LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw in Gustafson.

Eight of the 10 Swedes have won LPGA events. Only two Ñ Hedblom and Eva Dahllof Ñ do not have full-time tour cards.

The question is, did they drive Subarus through the snow to make their tee times growing up? Actually, only Maria Hjorth comes from the hinterlands near the Arctic Circle, a little town called Falun, a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest of Stockholm.

'Very similar to New York or Chicago, with four seasons,' Hjorth says. 'The course closes in October and opens in May.' Locals go to Spain and southern Europe to play.

Charlotta Sorenstam says golf 'used to be not a big sport. Now, there's almost 400 courses, where we used to have 300. And it's not a very big country, around 9 million people.'

Whereas the Brits, Scots and Irish have played golf for centuries, the sport only took hold in Sweden in the late 1980s with the emergence of Jesper Parnevik and Neumann, whose win in the 1988 U.S. Women's Open spawned the current generation of LPGA golfers.

Annika Sorenstam then emerged. Before leaving for the University of Arizona, she worked with Pia Nilsson, a former pro and Swedish national coach who espoused the 'Vision 54' concept first introduced by Kjell Enhager in his book, 'Quantam Golf.'

The concept: A golfer should visualize scoring a birdie on every hole and, thus, scoring a 54. Swedish pro Carin Koch, Sorenstam's good friend, also bought into the idea, and Sorenstam nearly accomplished the feat, shooting a 59.

Hjorth has carded birdies on every hole of her home course, although not in the same round: 'It's kind of a cult. It's not being scared of making birdies, basically.'

Even with Sorenstam's success, her greatest notoriety came when she teed up with the men at the PGA Tour's Colonial tournament last month. Just like in the states, Parnevik laments.

'Annika is beloved, but not to where she's extremely followed,' says Fredrik Virtanen, a reporter with the largest Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet. 'They want male stars in Sweden. There's still some chauvinism.'

LPGA player Helen Alfredsson can be a clown sometimes, but the Swedes are mostly reserved and humble. Sorenstam has a reputation as robotic, shy and uncharismatic. 'I know I'm never going to be Nancy Lopez,' she said after a 2002 event. 'But believe it or not, I'm trying to be the best Annika I can be.'

But Sorenstam really typifies the personalities of most Swedes, writes Stina Sternberg in Golf for Women Magazine: 'By nature a reserved, humble bunch, we Swedes are taught early not to act like we're better than anybody else. É Swedish society is set up to level the social and economic playing field and make all its citizens feel like equals.'

Parnevik, he of the bicycle hat, skintight shirts and flashy pants, may be an exception.

'Somehow,' he says, 'all the personality ended up on the men's side.'