More than a Game

Athletes never retire
Athletes never retire

Helen Alfredsson and Kent Nilson

Athletes never retire

Put simply, Helen Alfredsson is a legend of European golf. Hailing from from Onsloa, in Sweden, she was six-time Amateur Champion in her native country before she turned professional in 1989, winning the Rookie of the Year award and the Women’s British Open in her first season as a pro.

Subsequently, Helen won seven times on the LPGA and 11 times on the Ladies European Tour - the most notable of those wins coming at the 1993 Chevron Championship, her sole ‘major’ title since the Women`s British Open - but not yet considered a major by the LPGA.

What’s more, she earned the Rookie of the Year award on both sides of the Atlantic and played in the Solheim Cup from 1990 to 2002 before receiving the honour of serving as captain of Team Europe in 2007. After 25 professional wins she announced her retirement from professional golf in 2013.

Helen’s husband, Kent Nilsson, meanwhile, is a legend on ice. As a professional ice hockey player, he plied his trade in the NHL for over a decade and won the Stanley Cup during his time with the Edmonton Oilers. The Swede ended his playing career on the ice in 1998 and became a talented amateur golfer himself.

Today, the couple lives on hollowed golf ground in Florida at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge, where they play almost every day and are proof to the world that athletes never really retire.
Helen, your golf life started at the age of 10. What do you think would have happened if you hadn’t picked up golf at such a young age?
Helen: I’ve played golf pretty much all my life. It's hard to see my life without such a great sport. I played team handball once, but I don't think that I would have chosen that as a professional career as I chose golf for my life. If I’d had the brain, I would have loved to become a doctor. But my head just cannot focus on books! I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found golf. I never had the feeling of it being a job. I love to go out every day and play. As a young woman I had to make the decision, particularly what I’d like to do with my life and how I could make money. And for me to be able to continue to play golf and pay my bills, I think, was the biggest blessing of my life.

What makes it worth playing every day?
Helen: In golf you never know how you will perform. You can feel good before you go out and play the worst round or you can feel horrible, and you get out on the course and shoot your best score. I love that it’s such a true game. It's one of the most honest games in the world. You cannot cheat. Every mistake counts and you have to be honest with yourself. If you make a mistake, you have to look at it like “Okay, what is the best way out of here? How do I solve this problem?” You have to find a way to get along with yourself, which is a pretty good way to live your life.

Kent: It's a very special game for your mind. A lot of athletes come into golf when they're done with their careers. They think golf should be the easiest sport, the ball is not moving, but then they quickly find out how damn difficult golf really is!
Does golf teach you life lessons?
Helen: The one thing more than any that I love about the game: we all have to follow rules. There are rules and laws in society. You are not allowed to drive as fast as you want for example. But in golf we developed something more. We developed etiquette. And I think etiquette makes a round very nice and is so much more than just rules. I can walk in your line; I can talk while you swing. I can hit before you and I don't get a penalty. But the etiquette says that you don't do that. And if we had etiquette in life, the way we drive our cars, the way we behave towards each other would be so much nicer. If someone is faster than you, just let him through. It’s the little things that are not written down as rules that I like about golf. You need to be honest with yourself in golf. You have to take responsibility for your game. If I want to become a better player, I must work on it. If we approach life as we approach golf, we could have pretty good lives.

So, Bay Hill is the place where you can feel this spirit?
Helen: We chose Bay Hill Golf Club because of the atmosphere. The people here love golf. It is a real golf club. People who live here, they think golf. Arnold Palmer, when he was alive, created something special here in Bay Hill - it's a big family. Everybody knows each other's name. Arnold was so down to earth and talked to everybody, there was nobody here being stuck up or trying to be bigger than anyone else.
Do you know many other former professional athletes who play golf now?
Helen: A lot of professional athletes know each other, and a lot of them play golf now. We’re a very small amount of people and we get together a lot. So that's it, it is a special community. I think athletes fought so hard for all their careers, that they never lose this kind of competitive sense. A lot of us have done this since we were very young. And we were lucky enough to take it to a professional level. It's another life. It's a big separation to normal people with normal jobs. A lot of other athletes have a hard time finding something after their professional careers and golf gives them purpose again. I think that's why golf has been good for a lot of them. It's hard on your mind, but it's not that hard physically.

Kent, what was the hardest part of transitioning from professional hockey to golf?
Kent: I played left in hockey and there were no left-handed clubs when I started playing golf. So, I had to start hitting the other way, you know. I think I would have learned a lot faster if I could have played with my left hand!

Kent, did you ever consider playing professional golf?
Kent: I had the goal to play on a senior tour in Europe, because I thought I was good. I was a competitive guy and if you're good at one sport, you try to be good in every sport. But when I came out there, I realised pretty quickly, that I’m too far behind. The golfers on tour were just too good.
Can you tell by playing golf with someone what his former sport was?
Helen: When I play with different athletes, I think the hockey players have probably the most natural talent when it comes to golf. Maybe it’s because the way they stand towards the ball. They`ve developed the perfect hand-eye coordination and there’s even a thing in golf called the ‘hockey swing’. Tennis players are fairly good as well.

Soccer players are easy to find, they always fix their hair before they show up on a golf tournament! Hockey players are rougher and would never iron their shorts or a shirt. They just go. Soccer players make sure everything looks perfect before they go out.

Why is golf More Than A Game for both of you?
Kent: Well, for me, golf is More Than A Game because of how you hang with anybody and everybody. So, from a 10-year-old to an 80-year-old, you have golf in common. That is, for me, much More Than A Game.

Helen: I would say golf is More Than A Game because it's not only about playing golf. You have to behave. You have to be a nice person, you have to follow its etiquette. That’s why Golf is so much More Than A Game.