Across various industries and worlds, there's a goal that's easily translatable: to excel. Great achievement — won through dedicated work and a determination to improve — has been associated with Rolex for generations, making the brand's collaboration with ambassadors from a range of fields feel right. In an ongoing partnership with Rolex, ELLE explores the journeys of these exceptional women.
She was flying home — Southwest, seat 36C — when the captain made the announcement over the loudspeaker. Annika Sörenstam had just won the 1995 U.S. Women's Open, the Swedish golfer's first pro victory in the U.S, and now everyone on board knew it. "I ran into the bathroom, just hiding," she remembers. "I didn't want the attention."
Sörenstam laid low for a month after that just to avoid the media, but the athlete's crippling shyness (in her younger years, she'd finish second before giving a victory speech) ultimately stood down to her love of the game. By the time she retired in 2008, Sörenstam was virtually unbeatable and left her mark on the sport as the only woman to break 60 in an event and the first woman in over 50 years to compete on the PGA Tour. Filled with gratitude for what she's learned along the way, Sörenstam, now a mother of two living with her family in Orlando, built the ANNIKA Foundation to give aspiring junior golfers, mostly young girls, a chance to star in their own success stories—and take pride in it, heads held high.
On her introduction to the golf course:
"I played all kinds of sports, but my first introduction [to golf] was my parents. We would go out to the golf course. I have a younger sister — we didn't really play, but we would sit in pull carts and my parents would pull it along. Eighteen holes is a lot of pulling in a cart, so they would leave us at a hole and say, 'Here's some money for ice cream,' and they would come back 45 minutes later and pull us on the cart again. A few years went by, and we would go putt [when I was eight to ten years old]. But we were not members — you have to buy a membership for each [family member] — so the general manager, an old man, he would come out and say, 'You can't putt here.' We would run away and then half an hour later we'd be out putting and he would come back out saying, 'You can't putt here!' That was my introduction."
On growing up as a daughter of athletes:
"My mom was a golf club champion. She also played basketball, and my dad did everything really: track and field, handball, which is more popular in Europe. We were always around sports and very competitive whether it was cards or Yahtzee. I played soccer and competed in tennis since I was five. I thought golf was slow. There really weren't that many kids [playing golf] at that time, and it just felt like an old man's sport!"
"Early on, my fear of being seen and heard was very strong. I thought, 'It's better to be quiet.'"
On quietly falling in love with golf:
"At the age of 16 I realized that my backhand wasn't good enough, and after playing and losing 6‑0, 6‑1, it gets a little discouraging. But I was getting better in golf.
"My parents had a big basement — I'm talking a big, big basement; I can literally hit it 25 yards — and [one winter] I bought a net and a mat. I would play tennis, and then I'd roll down the net and hit golf balls. I spent hours in the basement after school [practicing] tennis and then golf, but it became more and more golf.
"I would just work on my technique, and I didn't mind grinding for some reason. I thought it was fun. So when the snow started to thaw and winter was over, I wasn't so rusty because I had been hitting balls all winter. And then I got invited to the national team as a trial. Then I got to go to Spain and play real golf, on a real golf course, and that's how at the age of 18 I became a full member of the national team."
On harboring extreme shyness:
"Early on, my fear of being seen and heard was very strong. In school, I wouldn't raise my hand to answer a question because if I said the wrong thing I thought everybody would laugh at me. I thought, it's better to be quiet.
"On the golf course, the fear of giving a winning speech and everybody looking at you — it was not something I was comfortable with. But then driving home in the car, thinking, Why do I practice so hard and then I throw it away here?, I knew I had to work on it."
On overcoming fear and self-consciousness:
"My parents came up with a plan. They called the tournament director for my next tournament and they decided every player had to say something, so you can imagine... I was like, 'Well, I didn't win.' They said, 'We know, but we would love for you to say something.' I was terrified. My heart was like a cartoon; you can just feel it popping out of your chest.
"My dad said, 'Just bring a golf club up on the stage, you feel comfortable with that.' So I did. You know, it probably wasn't the most elegant speech ever, but I managed. That's when I realised there are some things in life that you might not like and don't feel comfortable with, but if you're going to move on, you have to deal with it and make the best out of it. But you can imagine when I won my first big tournament in '95, the U.S. Open — there's no quietness about that, you know?"
On handling her sudden celebrity:
"It was hard for me. Of course, I was thrilled and so excited — [the U.S. Open win] was a dream come true. But all of a sudden, people wanted to know, 'Where does this young lady live?' 'Who does she hang out with?' 'What does she like to eat?'
"Before it was always about my game, now it was almost like, hang on a minute! I wasn't there for the attention; I was there because I loved to play and I knew I can get better and I was very focused on reaching my goals."
"At the top, I felt that, 'Okay, well, I'm not finished. Maybe nobody has been here, but I can see another step.'"
On empowering others through her story:
"I realised I was reaching out to people without really knowing it: just through the game, through my actions, through being a young woman and pursuing a dream that maybe wasn't the most natural thing for a girl from Sweden to pursue. Sweden is not known for golfers necessarily, so I think it just opened up the doors and other people saw that hard work pays off. It's something they could maybe relate to in their own areas.
"So then I embraced [the attention]. It made me fired up to say, 'Hey, if I can do it, anybody can.' It's just determination, strong will, patience, and hard work. I felt like I had the victories to be able to speak about it because I'd been through it."
On reaching a legendary level for women in golf:
"It's not just a change of a technique and then you get the results right away. It's a lifestyle change. It's a commitment, and I mean total commitment, so you have to be able to take the ups and downs.
"But I think you also have to be realistic: I looked at myself and I knew I was capable. Early on, when I reached number one, people at the time thought that was my end, that was the end. But I got to the top and felt that, 'Okay, well, I'm not finished. Maybe nobody has been here, but I can see another step.'"
"A lot of people said, 'She doesn't belong here.'"
On making PGA-Tour history as a female competitor:
"When the opportunity [to compete in the 2003 Colonial] came up, I really didn't hesitate because in my mind, it wasn't [to prove] women can play against men. It was more, 'Okay, I've been number one now for a few years, and I'm continuously looking for ways to get better.'
"A lot of people said, 'She doesn't belong here,' and 'She's taking someone's spot,' and 'I'm not going to play if she plays,' but I just tried to go about my own business. I got the invite, I said I'm going to make the most out of it, I'm not here to prove anything other than I want to learn from you guys, and I believe I had better years after that experience.
"Looking back on my career, I think of that week as one of my top three — not because of the score, because I didn't make [the cut] — but because I left with a wealth of knowledge about myself: Here, the shy girl that used to mess up on purpose at a home club is now playing [against men]. I put myself there intentionally."
"I was an older mom, so I had a lot of experience — not with kids but with myself."
On starting a family later in her career:
"I was very lucky to be able to have a career and then to have a family at the same time. I was an older mom, so I had a lot of experience — not with kids but with myself, and I was very comfortable putting that part to the side. It's always been about Annika; now it's about them and my family, so I was comfortable with that."
On often preferring to be a lone wolf in her sport:
"Some players are a lot more social and talkative, and you always see them together in the locker room, but that's their style. It's so easy to fall into peer pressure: Everybody else is doing that, and I didn't do that. A lot of times it was easier just to do my own thing because then I was more true to my heart instead of trying to be something for someone else."
On one particularly meaningful milestone:
"In 1995 I was Rookie of the Year. First of all, I didn't know if I was ever going to win a single golf tournament, so I didn't really picture myself with any quality sponsors. And all of a sudden, Rolex and I built up a friendship and a partnership. Obviously, to be picked up by somebody of that caliber gave me a confidence boost, and I was very proud to be an ambassador. For me personally, it was like, 'Wow, this is validation.'"
On making peace with retiring:
"In the end, to me it felt like I'd climbed Mount Everest. I was at the top. There was no other top for me and that's when I realized that I didn't have the motivation or the desire—the hunger to keep on going; that I had reached my peak as far as how good I could be.
"It got tougher in the end when in one year, I won 13 tournaments. That was my best year and I remember on New Year's thinking about [the next] year like, 'Oh, 14 tournaments... that makes me tired.' I'm not a person that sits still, and I'm going to keep going until I can't go anymore. There were other mountains I wanted to climb, but I had to get down from my competitive mountain and start these other journeys."