KISSIMMEE — Growing up, many golfers only dream of the opportunity that Nicole Morales had last year at the ANNIKA Invitational.
As the American Junior Golf Association's player representative, she introduced Annika Sorenstam at a reception before a junior girls tournament at Reunion Resort hosted by the World Golf Hall of Famer.
"That was the most nerve-racking experience,'' said Morales, a student at Lake Mary Prep. "I remember getting up on the stage. I thought I was going to fall. I know I did a good job, but on the inside, I was so nervous.''
For the 72 golfers entered in the three-day ANNIKA Invitational, beginning Saturday on the Watson Course at Reunion, being up close to Sorenstam can do that. Her achievements — 72 LPGA victories, eight-time tour Player of the Year, 10 major championships among them — can be intimidating, no matter how much Sorenstam sees herself in the girls who will compete in the 54-hole tournament.
"It wasn't that long ago that I was in these young ladies' shoes,'' Sorenstam said. "I know what it is like to want to play golf at a higher level.''
Circle Christian golfer Abbey Carlson recalls watching Sorenstam on TV and how much of an effect it had on her.
"It was me seeing them do what I eventually wanted to do,'' said Carlson, who received an autographed picture of Sorenstam as a Christmas present as a girl. "It made me want to play professional golf.''
The first time that Morales met Sorenstam, she was about 9 years old and volunteering on the driving range at an LPGA event in New York. Sorenstam was competing in the tournament.
"I introduced myself, and I even have a signed glove by her,'' said Morales, who did not compete for Lake Mary Prep's golf team and has signed with Alabama. "She obviously doesn't remember that, but that was the first time I have met her.
"She has been such a huge inspiration to me growing up.''
Circle Christian golfer Samatha Wagner is appearing in her fourth ANNIKA Invitational.
"I met Annika when I was really young, but the first time talking to Annika was the first time I played the ANNIKA," Wagner said.
Wagner, who now trains at Sorenstam's academy at Reunion Resort, recalls receiving advice from Sorenstam that touched on more than the fundamentals of golf. Nutrition, fitness and the mental aspects of the sport are also major focuses of Sorenstam's clinics.
Sorenstam plans to host a clinic for the competitors Sunday.
"I just want them to know that they can come ask me questions about anything, about college, about tournaments, about shots, about anything," Sorenstam said.
Even overcoming inhibitions. Sorenstam's experience helped Morales introduce her last year.
"Annika's whole thing is that she was not as great of a public speaker as she is now, and it was very difficult for her,'' Morales said. "If I knew she could do it, I could do it."