Up close: Suzann Pettersen

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By BETH ANN BALDRY
Senior Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. – Suzann Pettersen wasn’t thrilled with the idea of posing inside the elevator of her new home. American readers might find the photo pretentious, she feared. After a little coaxing, Pettersen pulled back the elevator door, smiled and instinctively pointed one thumb up and one thumb down: As if to say, “Which way am I headed now?”

The scene inside her yet-to-be-furnished, three-story home reveals two things about Pettersen: She’s doesn’t flaunt her success, and she’s not afraid to make fun of herself.

Pettersen didn’t design this spacious 6,134-square-foot home she bought during the offseason; the elevator came with the place. Yet it symbolizes how far she’s come in a short period of time.

In the past 15 months, Pettersen transformed from an injury-plagued player with a strange-looking swing to one of the most powerful professionals in the game. She earned $1.8 million last season, more than quadrupling her previous best effort. Pettersen would have ridden the momentum of 2007 all the way to the penthouse if not for Lorena Ochoa.

Pettersen, 27, mostly keeps to herself when she’s working and sometimes carries a stoic expression. Peel back the exterior, however, and you’ll find a quick wit and mischievous smile. She’s working on becoming more relaxed on the golf course – something akin to Ochoa, one of her favorite fellow competitors.

“We’ve got great chemistry,” Pettersen said of Ochoa. “There’s something about her. She’s very calm, collected, funny.”

Pettersen’s home sits on a lake two doors down from Se Ri Pak’s in a neighborhood close to Bay Hill. People don’t recognize Pettersen around Orlando, except inside Arnie’s place. But at home in Norway, Pettersen often hears whispers when she walks into a room.

“Americans will actually come up and say ‘Is that you?’ ” Pettersen said. “In Norway, they just whisper about you. You almost feel more stupid.”

After last year’s success, there was much to talk about. Six worldwide titles, a ranking as high as No. 2 in the world at the start of ’08 and Norway’s first major championship (McDonald’s LPGA Championship).

Pettersen remembers a time when the Norwegian Golf Federation begged newspapers to write a few inches on its players. Now Pettersen finds herself turning down requests.
This season started slowly for Pettersen, until she tied for second behind Ochoa at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Not that she is worried.

“I need to play my way into form,” she said.

“I need competitive rounds in my body.”

Pettersen isn’t afraid to let loose off the course but the reality is most of her time is spent doing three things: working out, playing golf or sitting on an airplane. If she takes too much time off from the game, guilt sets in.

The guilt is a byproduct of her ultra-competitive nature. Pettersen, an avid skier, thinks she would have become world class at practically any sport she chose to pursue full time.

That’s not hard to believe after meeting her athletic parents, Axel and Mona. Axel, her tall, striking father, sells real estate in Norway and was a champion skier. Mona used to run a gym back home and, like Suzann, played many sports.

Pettersen, who counts Olympic skiers as her heroes, enjoyed horseback riding at an early age and attended several camps.

“I told her, ‘You’re never going to get a horse,’ ” Mona said. “ ‘Let’s go another way.’ ”

Eventually Pettersen settled on golf, a sport that’s impossible to play half the year in Norway. It’s also a sport that garnered little attention despite being next door to a Swedish stable of superstars.

Mona caddied for her daughter on the Ladies European Tour for two years and now is her travel companion for at least half the year on the LPGA. They work out together, eat meals together and navigate their way around the globe. Pettersen doesn’t socialize much outside her close circle of supporters.

“She’s not out here for that,” Mona said while catching some rays during a Kraft Nabisco practice round. “Suzann is in America to work.”

Theirs is a relationship many might envy: built on respect first, then friendship. Foremost, Mona is Suzann’s mom, and the player sets the pace for her career.

“It’s a fine balance out there,” Mona said. “She’s the performer; she’s the boss. . . . I can’t tell you when the mom hat comes on. She knows. There’s a respect.”

To travel the world with her only daughter, Mona sacrifices time with her husband and two sons. Stefan, 34, is a dentist in Norway, and Gunerius, 29, is an investment banker in Sweden.

These are the men in Pettersen’s life who pushed her to be tough.

After tasting victory for the first time last season and then tasting it again, over and over, Pettersen wants to be No. 1.

It wasn’t so long ago she thought her career might be over before it ever really got started. A back injury left her out of commission for eight months in 2005.

Just how low was the lowest point?

“I remember it so clearly,” Pettersen said. “There were five doctors there and one said, ‘To be honest, none of us can guarantee that you will play golf again.’ I was like, ‘What? What did you just say?’ I didn’t want to hear it. But in a way it was kind of good because I was like, well, I will prove you wrong.”

Pettersen came back to competition with a full stop in her swing, to keep the pain from shooting up her back. She played like that in the 2005 Solheim Cup and all of ’06. Then she decided it was time to change.

Enter Gary Gilchrist, the effervescent swing coach who couldn’t stand watching Pettersen waste her athleticism on a swing drill meant for the practice tee.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God; how am I going to make a proper golf swing?” Pettersen recalls.
Between Gilchrist and Vision54 mental coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, Pettersen was reborn.

“She used to think the only way you can win is to have perfect ballstriking,” Nilsson said. “It’s impossible.”

After the Women’s British Open last year, Nilsson and Marriott gave Pettersen some homework: Break down the difference between the pursuit of perfection and pursuit of excellence.

“Sometimes Pia and Lynn, they ask you the questions you wish no one asked you,” Pettersen said. “There’s always an answer to everything you do, but maybe you don’t want to pop the questions. With the people I work with being honest, being present and straightforward is the most important thing for me.”

Not surprising, coming from a player whose straightforwardness caused a stir several years ago on network television when she swore during an interview at the Solheim Cup.

“Rookie mistake,” Pettersen said with a laugh.

A clip on YouTube shows Pettersen dropping a few choice words at an LPGA event last year. Rules officials asked her to at least swear in Norwegian if she’s on TV.

“It doesn’t happen that much anymore,” Pettersen said. “I’m trying to be much more neutral to the outcome. Every now and then, my mistakes need to come out verbally.”

Staying “neutral” to shots is a Vision54 mantra designed to keep a player’s frustration from escalating. By not having as forceful a reaction to poor shots during the round, Pettersen finds her energy level at day’s end much higher. For Nilsson and Marriott, it’s about celebrating the good shots and staying objective to the rest.

These days, there is plenty to celebrate. A new home, a sleek black BMW SUV, a new relationship with Nike Golf, an aggressive game that can, at times, rival Ochoa’s, and plenty of laughs.

Heading into last week’s Ginn Open, a victory in 2008 still eluded her, but Pettersen remained patient.

“I always compare myself to last year,” she said. “I feel like I’m 10 times better now.”

Pettersen’s elevator ride is just getting started.

• • •

Beth Ann Baldry is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach her e-email [email protected]

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