|Annika Sorenstam" hspace=9 src="/go2orlando/images/golfart/annika2.jpg" width=150 align=top vspace=5 >|
(c) Associated Press
True to her stoic on-course demeanor, she never blinked. Of course, none of the other patrons standing safely behind the fences of Gatorland that day blinked, either.
Sorenstam, who is from Sweden, has the free time to pursue such touristy interests now that she has moved to Orlando, having purchased a home inside the gates of the tony Lake Nona Club in East Orange County.
Sorenstam, who previously used Lake Tahoe as her U.S. base, was not the first to make the move. In fact, taking up residence in the City Beautiful has become something of a trend among LPGA professionals the past few years.
The reasons are several. Orlando has a modern airport offering non-stop flights to most tournament destinations. The warm climate allows golfers to play and practice year-round. And the area offers an abundance of championship courses and practice facilities, plus everyday access to several of the game's top teachers.
Oh, lest we forget, there's always the little bonus that golfers reeling in six- and sometimes seven-figure salaries cannot seem to bring up without suppressing a large grin: Florida has no state income tax.
When Arnold Palmer first visited Orlando's Bay Hill Club to participate in an exhibition in 1965, he firmly believed he was onto the world's best kept secret, and it wasn't long before Palmer, a native of many a brutal Pennsylvania winter, establishing roots here. Of course, at the time, there was one house built near Bay Hill, and Walt Disney World was little more than a collection of orange groves, lakes and the seeds of one man's ambitious dream for Central Florida.
Palmer laughs today when he reflects upon his ``discovery.'' His secret got out. Fast.
For years, many top PGA Tour stars have called Orlando home, from Palmer in the 1970s to Greg Norman, Mark O'Meara, Nick Price and Payne Stewart in the mid-to-late 1980s to a young tour rookie by the name of Tiger Woods in 1997.
The top women players quickly are closing the gap in numbers with their male counterparts. The LPGA's media guide features no fewer than 20 players who list Orlando as their residence, and others spend at least part of the year in the city. If word of mouth among players counts for anything, those numbers likely will only grow.
``I feel comfortable here,'' says Se Ri Pak, a young South Korean pro who, as a rookie in 1998, won two major championships, including the U.S. Women's Open, and shined a spotlight on women's golf as brightly as Woods had on the men's game one year earlier.
Pak, 21, first came to Orlando to work on her game with Lake Nona's David Leadbetter, one of the game's most highly regarded instructors, and she gradually became sold on staying in Orlando permanently. A year ago, she moved into a new house not far from Palmer's Bay Hill Club.
``It's pretty quiet, and the people are pretty nice,'' Pak said. Not that she was left in total peace, however. Pak used to frequent a favorite Korean restaurant on the south end of Orlando, but found it became too hectic when buses unloading scores of Korean tourists would stop in the parking lot, forcing her to trade chopsticks and her dinner for a pen and a few dozen autographs.
These days, Pak is more apt to serve as host next to the pool at home, cooking barbecued Korean dishes for friends. Emilee Klein, another of golf's top young stars, misses the glitz of shopping back in California, but in more than two years in Orlando has discovered it has plenty of quality tradeoffs. Klein, like Sorenstam, is a resident at Lake Nona, where she and her husband, Kenny Harmes, who caddies on the Senior PGA Tour for Hubert Green, live in a villa near the practice tee. They have also purchased a lot upon which they'll one day build a house they've already designed.
So, during the 15 or so weeks a year when she is not traversing the globe chasing a little white golf ball at tournaments, what would Klein consider the perfect day? Waking early at Lake Nona for some golf - Harmes sometimes plays 54 holes, with Klein joining him for nine - followed by a light lunch, an afternoon on the lake (they own Wave Runners), a few hours in the gym and a casual, early-evening dinner. Sometimes Klein will cook, and sometimes she and her husband simply drive to the Disney Boardwalk, where the Flying Fish Cafe has become their favorite eatery. (``Gourmet, but very casual,'' Klein says.)
Klein enjoys the tranquillity of Lake Nona, where she has met deer at her front doorstep, as well as the convenience of being so close to Orlando International Airport. It almost seems a badge of honor when she tells her friends, ``I live 10 minutes from the airport, and 25 minutes from the supermarket.''
Pak was not the first rookie phenom to decide upon Orlando as the place where she would catch her breath and put up her feet, trying to come to grips with instant stardom. Three years ago, Karrie Webb came to the United States from Australia, finished second and first in her first two LPGA events in Orlando, and parlayed the $140,000 she won into a downpayment on a home near Bay Hill. Webb since has moved to South Florida, where she could be closer to the ocean.
Nonetheless, the LPGA, which is headquartered in Daytona Beach, has steadily been establishing quite a foothold in the Orlando area. It comes as no surprise for residents to see Jerilyn Britz on the fairways of Eastwood Golf Club, Kathy Postlewait wearing a toolbelt and doing her own house repairs in Casselberry, Susie Redman testing out a new roller coaster at Walt Disney World, Helen Alfredsson roaring down Apopka-Vineland Road on her motorcycle, or Barb Mucha rolling a 200-plus game at an Orlando bowling alley.
And who knows? That person standing next to you at Gatorland watching a disgruntled alligator might just be one of the best women golfers on the planet - just another multi-millionaire, a two-time U.S. Women's Open champion.