Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

On this day in 2003, Annika Sörenstam became the first woman in 58 years to play the PGA Tour - an honour previously accorded to sporting polymath Babe Zaharias, winner of two golds and a silver in athletics at the 1932 Olympics.

In that same year of 2003 Sörenstam, who succeeded Peter Dawson as President of the International Golf Federation (IGF) at the start of last year, won the Women's Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) Championship and Women’s British Open titles, and by the time she retired in 2008 she had amassed 10 major titles, and 72 victories on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. In so doing she had established herself as one of the best female golfers in history.

Last year Sörenstam returned to the greens in earnest as she took part in the US Senior Women’s Open at Fairfield, Connecticut - and won by eight strokes from fellow Swede Liselotte Neumann.

That means she has earned herself the right to take part in the US Women’s Open - an event she won in 1995, 1996 and 2006 - that will take place at the Pine Needles course in North Carolina from June 2 to 5.

"Winning last year’s US Senior Women’s Open was certainly rewarding, especially having my family there with me," Sörenstam told insidethegames. "I appreciate the opportunity to play in the US Women’s Open again at Pine Needles which that victory provided.

"I won at Pine Needles in 1996 so I look forward to going back. But this isn’t necessarily about a comeback, it’s more about our family.

"Until last year, our two children really had only seen YouTube clips of me playing at my best and they wanted me to play. This will certainly be different. They will experience crowds at Pine Needles that they have never seen before.

"Also, many of these young ladies have played in our ANNIKA Foundation tournaments over the last 15 years. I can’t very well tell them to accept a challenge and then not accept this exemption. I will continue to support the next generation and for me to go out and be part of our biggest event, hopefully will keep me a little more relevant when I mentor some of these girls."

Annika Sörenstam, who became International Golf Federation President in 2021, has since made a highly successful return to playing ©Getty Images
Annika Sörenstam, who became International Golf Federation President in 2021, has since made a highly successful return to playing ©Getty Images

Playing golf is clearly something this 51-year-old Swede finds, and has always found, relatively easy. Administrating golf - well, that is a tough gig.

When Sörenstam took over her present position she became only the second female President of a Summer Olympic International Federation (IF) after Marisol Casado of World Triathlon, although these two were joined in November last year by Petra Sörling, who was elected as President of the International Table Tennis Federation.

Like every IF, the IGF has had to work its way around the pandemic and, more recently, decide upon its policy with regard to Russian and Belarusian players following the invasion of Ukraine. The IGF joined many other IFs in taking up the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prompt and banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from its competitions for the foreseeable future.

But golf has presented its own unique challenges. One of the biggest headaches for her predecessor as IGF President was the hostile or at best sceptical reaction of some of the world’s top players to the idea of playing at Rio 2016, at which golf returned to the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus.

Australia’s Jason Day, Americans Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth and Ireland’s former world number one Rory McIlroy were among those who rejected the idea of competing, with concerns being voiced about the dangers of the Zika virus epidemic that had been in evidence in the Brazilian capital.

Carlos Nuzman, President of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, begged to differ, commenting: "They tried to blame Zika, but the media have shown that they are not coming because there's no prize money… Zika is much worse in Florida than in Brazil, and golfers are playing in Florida.”

Australia’s two-time Open winner Greg Norman told The Sunday Times: "There’s a disaster building. Google the name of it and you will see that it is located on what was a swamp.

"There are problems with pollution, with the perimeter property. You’re much more exposed to the possibility of a mosquito bite there than if you are competing inside the stadium.

"I hope that is their reasoning and it’s not just because they fancy a break.

"I fear now that golf might not survive beyond its two-Games cycle. The reputation of the sport looks like it is going to get a black eye over Rio."

From being one of the biggest sceptics about golf being included in the Olympics, Rory McIlroy has become one of the players keenest on the idea and is set on a medal at the Paris 2024 Games ©Getty Images
From being one of the biggest sceptics about golf being included in the Olympics, Rory McIlroy has become one of the players keenest on the idea and is set on a medal at the Paris 2024 Games ©Getty Images

McIlroy compounded the IGF’s discomfiture by subsequently claiming at a press conference: "I'll probably watch the Olympics, but I'm not sure golf will be one of the events I watch." After being asked which events he would watch, the 27-year-old stated: "Probably the events like track and field, swimming, diving, the stuff that matters."

A difficult period, then, for Dawson and his compadres? "It was," he confirmed to insidethegames when he reflected upon the impact of the Rio 2016 Games in December 2020.

"First of all, full credit to the women, who turned out pretty much 100 per cent to play, which was wonderful. There’s no hiding the fact that we were short of some top male players.

"There was the Zika virus, there were scheduling issues. Professional golfers have very tough schedules, they play many, many weeks of the year. But I think in the end having Justin Rose win the gold medal and then be such an ambassador for golf has caused many of them to say to me, 'Oh, we got that wrong, wish we’d played, looking forward to Tokyo.'

"To have Justin and Henrik Stenson, that year’s Open winner, and Matt Kuchar on the podium was pretty impressive."

Five years later at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games there was a stronger cohort of male players involved in an event that took place last summer without spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the world number three and reigning Open champion Collin Morikawa of the United States, Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and… Rory McIlroy.

Gold went to Xander Schauffele of the United States, silver to Slovakia's Rory Sabbatini and bronze to Chinese Taipei’s Pan Cheng-tsung, who won an epic seven-man bronze-medal playoff that included McIlroy.

"I’ve been saying all day I’ve never tried so hard in my life to finish in third place," McIlroy commented. "It makes me even more determined going to Paris and trying to pick one [medal] up.

"It’s disappointing, going away here without any hardware. But it’s been a great experience. Today was a great day to be up in contention for a medal."

Former IGF President Peter Dawson oversaw golf making a successful Olympic return at the Rio 2016 despite initial fears over player attendance ©Getty Images
Former IGF President Peter Dawson oversaw golf making a successful Olympic return at the Rio 2016 despite initial fears over player attendance ©Getty Images

Asked how symptomatic she thought this switch was among the top male players and how many more she expected to get on board by Paris 2024 Games, Sörenstam told insidethegames: "We were extremely pleased with the diversity of the field with 42 countries represented in Tokyo and also with the strength of field, especially with the women's field where all 15 of the top-15 ranked women athletes competed in Tokyo, mirroring a similar strength of field in Rio and we expect that strong commitment to continue in Paris."

The IGF, which is the recognised IF within the Olympic and Paralympic Movement, was founded in 1958.

Before he took up his position within the IGF in December 2010, Dawson had spent a considerable time shaping the argument for golf to return to the Games for the first time since 1904 and played his part in presenting the bid at the IOC's 13th Congress in Copenhagen in 2009.

"We didn’t have an International Federation in the same sense as many sports, and we used a body that was called the International Golf Federation and brought into that the whole of the professional game, which was essential to a successful bid because the IOC wanted the top professionals playing in every Games, just as they do in every sport," he recalled.

"So we had to almost re-create the IGF, and I was the first President of that re-created body, starting in 2010."

While the Tokyo 2020 golf experience was largely positive for the new IGF President, she is now beset by a potentially huge new challenge.

The first of seven objectives set out on the IGF site is: "to encourage the international development of the sport of golf".

Awkwardly for the IGF there is currently a huge power struggle within the sport following a proposed new men's tour backed by money from Saudi Arabia.

Depending on who you believe the Saudi-backed LIV Golf International Series is either a dead duck or an inevitable and irresistible force.

Asked in February by insidethegames to set out the IGF position with regard to the Saudi project, IGF executive director Antony Scanlon replied: "Until we officially learn of specific details [about the Saudi Golf League] and the IGF Board has had an opportunity to review and discuss any plans that might come forth and their potential impact, any response to your questions would merely be speculative and therefore premature".

He added: "At this point, we don’t even know if or when the league might start."

Greg Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, is convinced the proposed breakaway will become a reality ©Getty Images
Greg Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, is convinced the proposed breakaway will become a reality ©Getty Images

Since then it has emerged that the series - organised by Norman, who became LIV Golf Investments chief executive last October - is scheduled to begin at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire on the outskirts of London on June 9, but earlier this month the PGA Tour denied permission for its players to take part.

Jay Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner and chair of the IGF Board, has threatened to ban players from the PGA Tour if they agree to take part in LIV events.

In a Fire Pit Collective report earlier this year, six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, the American who has played a prominent role in the creation of the Saudi-backed breakaway competition, admitted the project was "sportwashing", his Saudi partners were "scary motherfuckers to get involved with" and that they "have a horrible record on human rights".

But he also defended the league for being in the players' best interests, adding that the PGA Tour was "really a dictatorship".

By contrast McIlroy has claimed the LIV series is "dead in the water", adding with reference to Mickelson, who has currently stepped away from the game: "I don't want to kick someone while he's down, obviously, but I thought they [Mickelson's comments] were naïve, selfish, egotistical, ignorant."

Norman, meanwhile, remains defiant: "Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it's exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament," he said a statement.

"This is particularly disappointing in light of the tour's non-profit status, where its mission is purportedly 'to promote the common interests of professional tournament golfers.'

"Instead, the Tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market," Norman claimed.

"No matter what obstacles the PGA Tour puts in our way, we will not be stopped."

The 12-team circuit is projected to feature five events in the United States later this year with purses of $20 million (£16.25 million/ €18.9 million) and Norman has indicated that additional funding has been forthcoming to make a full breakaway series possible by 2024.

Last week golfing legend Jack Nicklaus claimed he had been offered and turned down the lead role for the Saudi gold project.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, instrumental in forming the breakaway PGA Tour in 1968, says he turned down a similar role for LIV Golf Investments despite being offered "north of $100 million" ©Getty Images
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, instrumental in forming the breakaway PGA Tour in 1968, says he turned down a similar role for LIV Golf Investments despite being offered "north of $100 million" ©Getty Images

“I was offered something in excess of $100 million (£80 million/€95 million) by the Saudis, to do the job probably similar to the one that Greg [Norman] is doing," Nicklaus told the Fire Pit Collective. "I turned it down. Once verbally, once in writing. I said, 'Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour.'"

That he did, in 1968, in company with that other golfing megastar Arnold Palmer and other top professional players who felt their talents were not being sufficiently well recognised or rewarded by the PGA of America and formed a breakaway competition.

Fifty years on it is the PGA Tour that now finds itself being charged - in some quarters - with a failure to evolve and respond to new influences in the game.

The debate goes on. Mickelson was not in Tulsa, Oklahoma to defend his PGA Championship title this week - and some players there were not sorry.

Tiger Woods was studiously courteous about his old rival, calling him "a big draw for the game of golf", but also made it clear he backed the status quo.

"Phil has said some things that I think a lot of us who are committed to the Tour, committed to the legacy of the Tour, have pushed back against," Woods said. "I think that some of his views on how the Tour could be run, should be run, there’s been a lot of disagreement there."

Meanwhile Sörenstam has to try and assess the possible impact of all this upon golf’s representation at future Games.

After declining to add to the IGF position as outlined by Scanlon, she responded when asked if she foresaw the possible creation of alternative competitions to the PGA Tour impacting in any way upon Olympic representation going forward as follows.

"As in Rio and the Tokyo Olympic Games, the qualification system for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games will be based upon the Olympic Golf Rankings where the IGF utilises the official world golf rankings to determine eligibility.

"It is difficult at this time to state if any possible impact on athlete participation in Paris can be caused by any alternative golf competitions."

But Sörenstam remains very optimistic about the prospects for golf at the Paris 2024 Games.

"With regards the men’s field, if it had not been for the COVID-19 which meant the world number one and five had to withdraw, we had all but three of the eligible highest-ranked players in the men's world rankings participating in Tokyo.

"Based upon the feedback and comments made by those male athletes that participated in Tokyo we expect the best players in the world who qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games to participate."

Asked whether she felt golf had now sealed its Olympic place, Sörenstam responded: "As a result of golf's successes in both the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics and golf’s subsequent confirmation as a sport within the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 competitions, golf has definitely solidified its position in the Olympic programme.

"Having said that we by no means take our position within these Games programmes for granted and continue to strive to be a contributing member of the Olympic Movement and to present our sport in its best light to the vast new audiences and opportunities that participating in the Olympic Games brings golf.

"I definitely believe there is growing interest in golf as an Olympic sport, particularly after the thrilling finishes in Rio and Tokyo, and we’re hearing anecdotal stories from a number of federations regarding increased focus on and funding for golf.

"I’m confident this trend will continue as golf further establishes itself in the Olympics.

"I’ll cite three inspiring examples from the Tokyo Olympics that generated significant interest and have the potential for longer-term impact for golf in their respective home countries.

"Aditi Ashok’s near-medal performance in the women’s competition that even drew praise from India’s Prime Minister and President; Rory Sabatini’s silver medal on behalf of Slovakia following an Olympic-record 61 in the final round; and C.T. Pan’s emergence from a star-studded, seven-way playoff to win men’s bronze for Chinese Taipei.

"We’ll be very interested to see how these performances, and others, might influence golf interest and participation, particularly at the developmental level."

Before stepping down, Dawson mentioned his hope that there might one day be a separate team event at the Olympics. Does Sörenstam think this is either likely or desirable?

 Annika Sörenstam highlighted the outstanding performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics of India's Aditi Ashok ©Getty Images
Annika Sörenstam highlighted the outstanding performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics of India's Aditi Ashok ©Getty Images

"The IOC and LA 2028 will seek submissions from International Federations for proposals for additional events in 2023 and the IGF Board are conducting a review of our events with this deadline in mind," she replied. 

One of the questions golf’s attempt to regain Olympic status raised was one that has also been applied to other major sports seeking a place in the Games - should they be there if Olympic gold is not the best thing that can be won?

"In pursuing golf’s inclusion in the Olympics, no one said the hope or intention was to displace the traditional major championships for men and women," Sörenstam said.

"It would be a separate and totally unique event, prestigious in its own right.

"Despite facing unexpected challenges with Zika virus concerns in Rio and the pandemic’s impact on the Tokyo Olympics, the competitions in 2016 and 2021 unquestionably became highlights of the golf season, evidenced by fan engagement and the endorsement of those athletes who participated.

"I’ll also note that, as compelling as the competition was last year at Kasumigaseki Country Club, one can only imagine how electric the atmosphere would have been had fans been allowed on site - particularly with Japan’s own Mone Inami winning silver and Hideki Matsuyama in strong medal contention before being eliminated from the seven-way playoff for men’s bronze. 

"We’re confident it will continue to increase in importance as fan awareness and interest grows and Olympic golf increasingly becomes a stated goal among current and future professionals alike."