Door: Martijn Paehlig Fotografie: Getty Images
World
16

Brief van een kampioen voor een kind

Bijzonder kijkje in de ziel

'Lieve Herman,

Mijn mooiste geschenk, je was veel te klein om te beseffen wat er gebeurde, of waarom, maar je was erbij met mij en je vader tijdens de laatste week van mijn loopbaan als full-time golfer. We waren in Schotland, het was september 2019, op een plek die luisterde naar de naam Gleneagles.'

Met deze alinea begint een lang en bijzonder schrijven van Suzann Pettersen, de vrouw die het laatste punt, en daarmee de beker voor Europa, veilig stelde en daarna direct liet weten dat ze een punt zette achter haar glansrijke loopbaan.

Eén van de redenen - misschien wel dé reden - om de clubs aan de wilgen te hangen was de geboorte van haar zoon Herman en alle gevoelens die dat met zich meebracht. Waarom ben ik nog zo vaak van huis? Waarom draait de wereld om mij? Waarom..? Het waren vragen die het golficoon zichzelf de voorbije maanden meermaals stelde.

De antwoorden die ze vond vatte ze samen in een uitgebreid schrijven aan haar net een paar maanden oude kind, een schrijven dat ze ook deelt met de wereld en daarmee een bijzonder kijkje geeft in het hoofd, doen en laten van de veelvoudig kampioen.

Zelden waren de woorden 'must read' zó van toepassing...

 

Dear Herman,

My precious gift, you were far too young to know what was happening or why but you were there with your father and me during the final week of my full-time career as a professional golfer. We were all in Scotland, September 2019, at a place called Gleneagles for the Solheim Cup.

I’ll get to the details in a minute. But first you should know that before I became the person who folds your clothes and makes dinner for all of us, I played on the LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour for 20 years. In that time, I won 15 LPGA Tour events, seven LET events and two major championships. For half-a-dozen years I was consistently ranked as one of the top-10 women golfers in the world, reaching as high as No. 2 on several occasions. But that performance came at a cost. I didn’t realize it at the time, but tour life became so intertwined with my personal life that I sometimes could not tell them apart. My identity was linked to my job. How I played, how my practice sessions went on a particular day, how many putts I made or missed – all of that affected my moods, my priorities, my relationships and most of my decisions. I was, to some degree, selfish, which I considered a prerequisite for success. I had no trouble saying “No” and I did it quite a bit when I felt that someone or something was intruding on my time. That was part of the job. And my job, being one of the best golfers in the world, was my focus.

I’m very proud of the success I had in golf. Not only did my wins validate my belief that dedication, perseverance, sacrifice, passion and hard work will lead you to greatness in whatever you chose to do, but my performance as an athlete also led to financial stability and opened more avenues to me than I would have ever dreamed possible.

Even before you drew your first breath, you taught me an invaluable lesson about the things in life that really matter; about patience and perspective; about the extraordinary work ethic and monumental balancing act women around the world display; and about the sacrifices and selfless choices working mothers make every day.

It began a few days before Christmas 2017. That’s when your father and I learned that we were four-weeks pregnant. It hadn’t been easy. We wanted you so desperately that I underwent in vitro fertilization treatment, receiving a series of injections that prepared my body for pregnancy.

My plan (and I have always been a meticulous planner) was to play well into my pregnancy, maybe as late as May 2018. But my body had other ideas. I went to Orlando in January as I always did to work on my game and get ready for competition. I felt okay but I was extremely tired. When I wasn’t practicing, I was sleeping. I could sleep two hours in the middle of the day, which was just not me. I felt terrible about it because I had friends staying in the house and every time they walked in, I was either asleep or on the couch. I felt worried that they probably thought I was a couch potato.

Then, the week before I was scheduled to fly to Thailand for the LPGA’s early-year Asia swing, I started having complications. I knew this was not normal. So, I did what any rational, methodical professional would do: I completely freaked out. I drove franticly to the emergency room at the Arnold Palmer Hospital. Doctors checked me out and ran a battery of tests. Even though they said you were fine, I felt as though my world was falling apart. I had this idyllic notion of what my pregnancy was going to be like. Spending three days in the hospital was not it.

When I was released, I flew home to Oslo and went to my doctor. I was terrified, in part because I loved you so much, but also because I knew that whatever was happening was out of my control. I couldn’t work harder, practice longer, or exercise my way out of this.

The nurse took an ultrasound and my doctor said that you were fine. But he also said that, given the complications I’d had in Florida, I could no longer fly.

My brain didn’t process that. I said, “I’m supposed to leave for Thailand tomorrow.”

The doctor replied, “There’s no reason to take the risk.”

So, I did some quick calculating and said, “Okay, I’ll stay here until the Tour comes back to Arizona for the Founders Cup and rejoin them there.”

He said, “Are you not hearing me? You can’t fly. Not to Thailand, not to Arizona, not to England: you’re grounded.”

I was stranded in Oslo, which, in hindsight, was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. I was surrounded by family and friends, all there to support me, even though the first month I was a complete basket case, worrying every moment that something was going wrong. But doctors always calmed me down and assured us that everything was fine. By the time I was four months along, it was too late to rejoin the LPGA Tour – even if I had been cleared to travel.

I remember my uncle, who is a doctor, saying, “What is nine months out of your life?” I realized that it’s actually nothing. And by the same token, it was everything. Being forced to slow down, to stay put, set my mind at ease. Once it became obvious that I was going to take at least a full year off, it was like a weight had been lifted off my chest.

That’s when I realized what an insular bubble I’d been living in for 20 years. Golf, my job, had consumed me. Once I turned off the golf switch, that was it. I didn’t play golf, didn’t watch golf and didn’t think about golf for the first time in my adult life. Even during the few times when I was injured, my brain was always churning, working, planning my comeback. But this was different. This was a total break. And I was very comfortable. For the first time, my brain switched to normal.

Then you arrived and in an instant my brain switched again. I’ve always heard people say that becoming a parent changes you, but I had assumed that change took weeks, or maybe even months or years. That is wrong. It’s instantaneous. The moment you drew your first breath, I was a different person. Your father was there and as we held you, I asked myself, “Is there really any reason to go back to that other life? Is there anything left for me to accomplish in golf that would make it worth leaving you? Would winning another major make that much of a difference to my life or to yours? Would being part of another Solheim Cup make a difference?” I had played competitively for so long and had been living in this ego bubble – a small, compact world where everything was centered around me and my game. Once that bubble burst, I wasn’t sure I wanted to inflate it again. I had no desire to test my heart, my patience, my love for you and your father to try it.

People who hear that a child changes you always ask, “How? What changes?” There are practical answers. Traveling becomes complicated. Your schedules are not your own. Another human’s life is dependent upon you. But just as important and real as those things are, they are secondary to the root change, the change the matters. The truth is: Once you become a parent, your personal ego goes away.

I stayed at home with you for months before I picked up a golf club. But I was committed to play the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in mid-July 2019, so I had to prepare for that. Dow is one of my longtime sponsors. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

Once I started preparing, I got into a routine. Your grandparents and father helped care for you. We are blessed to be able to afford a good nanny who was a lifesaver at times. I knew you were in good hands. I never once felt as though you were uncomfortable or unhappy. But it was still hard in the beginning. I worried about being away from you. And the amount of time I committed to preparation was not even close to the same as before. My preparation was more focused and intense. I wasn’t working as long, but my work had 10 times the quality. A two-hour practice session accomplished as much as I once did in an entire day.

Suddenly I felt good about golf again. For the first time in my career, I really enjoyed playing golf because my expectations weren’t crazy high and I was not over-the-top hard on myself. After I finished the first round at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, a team event that I played with my dear friend Catriona “Beanie” Matthew, I thought, “That was really a lot of fun.” And then it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way about golf.

That week, though, Beanie, along with Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall, they all said to me, “You have to keep playing to get ready for the Solheim Cup.” I told them they were crazy but Anna said, “We can make everything work if you just keep practicing and playing.”

I wasn’t so sure. I told Beanie, “Evian is next week and I’m not entered in that. The (AIG) Women’s British is coming up and the deadline has already come for that.” Even if I was being considered as a captain’s pick, the first event I could possibly play was the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open. But Beanie was serious, so I shuffled my schedule for the summer. I told your dad, “If I’m going to play, I need some competitive reps. I can either play Canada or Portland.”

He said, “You have to play both. If you’re in Canada, you just go over to Portland.”

I said, “I’m not going to be away from Herman for two weeks. It’s not worth it.”

But I knew he was right. It was heartbreaking to leave you, although once I got on site at the Cambia Portland Classic, my routine fell into place. Still, I didn’t feel right. I was staying in this wonderful hotel in downtown Portland and all I could think was, “What are you doing? All by yourself? Really? This means nothing if you can’t share it with them.”

The week of Solheim, you and your dad came to Scotland. So even with all the activities there, I could always see you. I could come to the room for a few minutes and play with you. I could hold you, rock you and feed you. You could hear the sound of my voice and I could feel the warmth of your cheeks.

That’s when another realization hit me: I don’t think most people realize the sacrifices moms make. I don’t know how they do it. There are millions of working moms with kids at home. I don’t think they get enough credit for how they manage their lives.

The Tour moms certainly don’t get enough credit. I can’t imagine how the players on Tour travel with their kids. Beanie did it with two children. So did Juli Inkster. Given what I’d experienced traveling with just one, I couldn’t imagine what their lives had been like. Sure, the Smucker’s LPGA Child Development Center that goes with the Tour is fantastic, but that’s a very small part of being on the road with a child. I think we should sing the praises of working moms everywhere as loud and as often as possible.

I guess I was a controversial captain’s pick for that Solheim Cup. Having not played much in two years, I understood the sentiment. But I also knew that match play in a team environment was much different than 72 holes of stroke play where you never saw most of the other competitors up close.

Friday, the first day of the matches, I played with Anne van Dam, one of the most dynamic young players I have ever seen, and certainly the longest driver of a golf ball I’ve ever played with. We had both asked to play with each other. And I felt bad because I didn’t play that well. But we partnered perfectly and won.

On Saturday, my golf game came to me. I started feeling more comfortable.

Then, on Sunday in the singles competition, I really found my game. My match was with Marina Alex, a wonderful, funny Tour veteran who was playing in her first Solheim Cup. We went back and forth for 17 holes and were all tied with one hole to play. We both hit great wedge shots into the final green. But my ball had backspin and ended up below the hole, while Marina’s rolled forward and was above the hole, giving her a difficult downhill putt. At the time, I did not know that our match would decide the outcome of the entire three-day competition. Bronte Law, who was playing behind me, had won her match mere moments before Marina and I putted.

Marina hit a good putt that slid just right of the hole. So, I had about a 6-footer to win.

The tagline of the Solheim Cup, the one used in all the marketing materials that had been painted on all the grandstands, was: “It all leads to this moment.” I hit a perfect putt but in golf you never know what will happen until the last second. When I saw the ball disappear and the tens of thousands of fans surrounding the green roared, I realized, immediately, that the line I’d seen all week was a perfect summation of my career. It all led to that moment. My family was all there. You won’t remember it, but I’m sure you will see it in replay for years to come.

What you can’t see on video is the relief I felt. I knew in that instant that I would never have to ask myself “what if…?” I would never have to wonder if I could make it back. I had answered all those questions. It was a fairytale ending, one I couldn’t have imagined.

The crowd and my teammates rushed the 18th green, jubilant and celebrating. It took a minute for me to find you and your dad in the melee. But when I did, when I looked at you in your father’s arms, I said, “This is it. Nothing is ever going to top this.” I’d had it all – a great team, a great captain, a great competition and an unbelievable outcome – a historic week for women’s golf. I’m thrilled you were there. Even though you won’t remember it, having you present is something I will cherish forever. Combining the responsibilities of being a mom and a golfer … it was all I needed.

So I announced my retirement from competitive golf on the spot.

Then came all the responses. The first time it hit me was Sunday night. We got back to the team room, had a celebration dinner and a big party. At about 11 p.m., I went back to the room to check on you. I sat in one of those comfy chairs in the dark room of the Gleneagles Hotel listening to you breathe. I looked at my phone and it had blown up with thank-you messages from people around the world. LPGA players, staff, Europeans, Americans – it didn’t matter. Messages were ticking in one after another.

I had become a lot more emotional as a mom. But this was overwhelming. I wept like I hadn’t in many years. For the first time as a golfer, I was completely, totally satisfied, content and at peace.

I hope this story helps you understand our family. I hope it helps you appreciate the discipline and determination it takes to reach goals. Work over time will always pay off. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. I hope you find the passion in whatever you do that I found in golf – a love that dwelled deep in my heart. And I hope you see in this story, in my one incredible week at the Solheim Cup, that there is a time for everything in life.

That Sunday was the time for me to step away from golf and be a wife and mother. I hope you can find the peace in your decisions that I have found in mine.

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