Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2013

Determined Pursuits Of An Improbable Dream

Beaver Meadow, New Hampshire’s oldest golf course, sits in the northern reaches of the capital city of Concord, just within the city limits. It’s an arduous twelve hour road trip from there to Highland Meadows Golf Club in the Toledo suburb of Sylvania, Ohio; but last weekend the distance between the municipal course in the Granite State and the private club in the Midwest was measured in more than miles. The two were also separated by some degree of ability, a fair measure of opportunity, and at least a little bit of luck. Highland Meadows played host to the LPGA Tour’s Marathon Classic, where Spain’s Beatriz Ricari edged Paula Creamer to claim her second Tour win this year. More than 750 highway miles to the east, the developmental Symetra Tour brought nearly 140 mostly young women and their common dream of one day joining the LPGA to Beaver Meadow’s fairways.

On Saturday afternoon I was standing next to the 4th tee, behind which runs the length of the par-3 3rd hole, when along came Taylor Collins preparing to drop off her bag on her way the 3rd green. On a Tour in which most of the players are recognizable only to family and close friends, the 24-year old Collins is one of the more familiar faces, at least to devotees of the Golf Channel. She is one three full-time Symetra Tour members who are among the six women who along with six men comprise the contestants on the current season of The Big Break, the cable network’s elimination game show. For the uninitiated, the program might best be described as a version of “Survivor” played out on the links. Through each episode the competitors engage in a series of skills competitions or short matches, with one player going home at the end of each show. The last golfer standing wins $50,000, an endorsement contract from Adams Golf which includes an additional $10,000 cash, assorted other prizes, and, most important for the aspiring pros, an exemption into a PGA Tour or LPGA Tour event.

The current season’s competition was filmed over two weeks at a golf resort on the Riviera Maya, along the eastern portion of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Collins offered a friendly greeting as she passed by, but even if I was her best friend and not a complete stranger she could not have told me the show’s outcome, thanks to a strict confidentiality agreement signed by each contestant. But with the season nearing its end I knew that she was one of four semifinalists, and had already achieved the distinction of being the last woman still playing. Two days after watching her play in person I tuned in to see her win a four-hole match against one of the three remaining male golfers to advance to next week’s final.

Her week in New Hampshire was not as successful, and by the time I caught up to Collins she was on the back nine of her second round after starting play on the 10th hole, playing only for pride. Generally steady play was marred by three successive disastrous holes at the very end of her first round that sent her tumbling down the leader board and virtually guaranteed that she would miss the cut. Yet when I followed along for a few holes a day later she was a par-making machine, and one who was very demanding on herself. After a two-putt par on the 3rd hole she teed off directly in front of me on the par-5 4th. Her leaning body as she watched the drive told me it was headed right, and a rueful shake of her head confirmed that she found the shot woefully lacking. After all three young women in the group teed off we in the gallery of four or five followed them down the fairway, and I expected to watch Collins wander far afield in search of her ball. Instead the tee shot which she found so inadequate had come to rest just barely in the rough, less than two feet off the short grass of the fairway.

She went on to par the 4th, and split the fairway with her drive on the par-4 5th hole. Her iron approach shot produced another unhappy shake of the head, but the ball ended not just safely on the green, but exactly hole high. However it was twenty feet to the right of the flag, which was obviously the source of her dissatisfaction. It is both the gift and the curse of every determined professional that as good as they are, they are always working to improve and they always knows when they could have done better. Collins made her par on the 5th hole and followed that with another on the short 6th, where she calmly holed a nervy four footer after leaving a lengthy lag putt short. Another drive down the middle of the fairway and another iron to the green followed on the 7th. Collins was on her way to an ever par round of 72 even as I had to be on my way home.

I returned on Sunday afternoon for the conclusion of the Northeast Delta Dental International. Thailand’s P.K. Kongkraphan led the 75 golfers who had made the cut at the start of the final round after posting identical scores of 4-under 68 on both Friday and Saturday. The 21-year old won four events sponsored by the China LPGA before coming to the U.S. and finishing tied for 29th at the LPGA Tour’s final qualifying tournament prior to last season. That gave her a partially exempt status that allowed her to play in three LPGA events last year. Currently she is 185th on the LPGA’s exempt player priority list, which effectively means she is a full-time Symetra Tour player.

Kongkraphan couldn’t match her sub-70 rounds of the first two days, but she was steady on Sunday and still led by one at 9-under par as the afternoon wound down. Then Michelle Shin, playing two groups in front of Kongkraphan, holed a late birdie to tie for the lead. I followed Shin’s group for their final two holes, and twice watched her sink five foot putts to save par and remain tied. Minutes later the final threesome came up Beaver Meadow’s par-4 closing hole, and a wild approach from Kongkraphan left her right of the green in deep rough. But she struck a beautiful chip and holed the par-saving putt to force a sudden death playoff.

Three times the two young women returned to the 18th tee. Three times each had an iron approach to the green. In a remarkable display of shot making, on the first time through Shin’s shot stopped within four feet of the hole, and Kongkraphan’s was only inches further away. Stunningly, both missed their birdie putts. On the second effort, both approaches were even better than the first, and this time both birdie putts were holed. Finally on the third extra play of the 18th Shin’s drive trickled just into the rough. The imperfect lie led to an approach that was eighteen feet right of the hole, while Kongkraphan’s shot from the fairway was yet again laser-like, and victory was at hand. The $15,000 first prize propelled her to third on the Symetra Tour money list, from which the top-10 at season’s end earn LPGA Tour cards for the following year.

While we won’t have to wait long to find out, as this is written we don’t know if Taylor Collins will emerge victorious on the Big Break; and we are many weeks from knowing if P.K. Kongkraphan will still be in the Symetra Tour’s top-10 when the season ends later this year. Obviously the vast majority of Symetra Tour players never reach their goal of earning a LPGA Tour playing card. But among many others Laura Davies, Christie Kerr, Lorena Ochoa, and Karrie Webb all did; and those four have combined for 102 LPGA Tour wins, including 15 majors.

On the Golf Channel show Collins has learned how to thrive under pressure. At Beaver Meadow Kongkraphan learned how to close out a victory against a determined opponent. The distance between the women’s developmental golf tour and its big league parent is great, but Collins has gone to the Yucatan in pursuit of her dream, and Kongkraphan came halfway around the world to win in Concord. Perhaps for one of them, but certainly for someone in the field at Beaver Meadow, the distance remaining to living their dream is really not that far at all

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Responses

  1. Very nice. Thanks!


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