Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 14, 2014

With Skill And With Hope, They Play On

The 18 holes of Stonebridge Country Club wind their way up and down southern New Hampshire’s forested hills. Though the highly regarded public course sits just a short drive west of the state’s largest city, its entrance is off a narrow country road, and the views from the fairways are of evergreens, birches and the tops of nearby foothills. Despite its proximity to Manchester, the hustle and the harshness of urban life seem very far away. It is a place to escape the everyday reality of the city, to unwind, and perchance to dream.

It is a fitting location then for a stop on the Symetra Tour, the women’s developmental golf tour. The LPGA itself hasn’t played anywhere in New England since Annika Sorenstam won the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open at Newport Country Club, a deficiency that commissioner Michael Whan will hopefully rectify as he continues his determined effort to grow women’s professional golf. But the Symetra Tour, appropriately billed as “the road to the LPGA” since the top ten money winners earn playing privileges on the big tour, has been coming to New Hampshire for more than a decade. Played for years at ancient Beaver Meadow Golf Course a few miles north in Concord, this year’s tournament was moved to Stonebridge and rechristened the New England Charity Classic.

On Saturday a friend of four decades and I made our annual trip to watch more than 140 young women ply their trade and pursue their common dream of earning the right to tee it up with the likes of Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie. Back at home on the New Hampshire seacoast a day later, I read an email from my colleague in which he praised our outing while suggesting that a good portion of the enjoyment was derived from something more than just the quality of the golf or the excellent companionship. He was right on that score of course, for the Symetra Tour is professional sport free of the relentless commercialism and overwrought hype which too often obscures one’s view of the play at the highest levels of all of our organized games. In the place of big money contracts and overpriced tickets pro sports at this level, be it developmental tour golf or summer league baseball, offers the fan something far less complicated.

That does not imply that Symetra Tour players are anything other than highly skilled. Since golf is a sport that my friend and I both play, or at least pretend to, there is even something a bit demoralizing about watching every year several competitors who appear in danger of being blown away by a stiff wind stride to the tee and rip their Titleist’s 260 yards down the middle of a fairway. The knowledge that as good as they are these golfers are not yet able to make the big tour leaves one all the more in awe of the LPGA’s standard of play.

But along with their ability these golfers must possess an equal measure of determination and a willingness to sacrifice. The entire purse at the New England Charity Classic was $100,000. That’s one-fifteenth of the prize money at the Meijer LPGA Classic, which was being played in Michigan at the same time. Eventual winner Sedena Parks took home $15,000 for outlasting Jackie Stoelting in a playoff on Sunday, but from there the payouts declined quickly. The four professionals who tied for 15th place each received a check for less than $1,400, and Michelle Low, who finished last among the 89 players who made the cut, won all of $225.

Yet these golfers still have expenses that must be met. Symetra Tour players rely first on the generosity of individuals willing to help sponsor the cost of traveling the country from one tournament to the next. Perhaps wealthy relatives or a group at a player’s home club are the unseen benefactors that allowed some of the women we watched to even come to New Hampshire. Once at a tour stop the golfers must next rely on the kindness of strangers. A significant part of the organizational effort for these tournaments is finding families willing to serve as volunteer hosts of a player for the week.

All pro golfers are independent contractors who must make their own decisions about what tournaments to play and their own arrangements to get to the next venue. At one point in the afternoon we stood next to the 16th tee while a threesome compared travel plans while waiting for the group ahead of them to clear the fairway. Paula Creamer and Inbee Park may travel first class. But this was a mind-numbing discussion of shared rental cars and carefully plotted trips by air preceded by “short” four hour drives to the airport, stopovers with friends or relatives in various states, and strategic drop-offs of their own automobiles at locations from which they could be retrieved, sometimes weeks later.

They do it all while remaining mostly anonymous. At Stonebridge the two most recognizable names were Madison Pressel and Cheyenne Woods. In both cases the familiarity is derivative. Pressel is the younger sister of Morgan Pressel, a two-time winner on the LPGA; while Woods is the niece of a somewhat more famous golfer with the same last name. Though it could be said based on her 3-under par tie for 15th place that Cheyenne’s game is currently in better shape than Tiger’s.

For most of them of course, the dream of advancing to the LPGA will ultimately remain just that, a dream. One day that group at the home course will close their checkbook, or the player will recognize that the added level of skill is never going to be attained, and the dream will be put away. But the Symetra Tour also counts among its alumnae English great Laura Davies and World Golf Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb, along with Christie Kerr and Lorena Ochoa, both of whom have been ranked #1 in the world.

Late in the day my friend and I stood by the green on the par-3 15th hole as the threesome of Ulrika Van-Niekerk, Mary Narzisi and Taylor Collins struck their shots and came walking up from the tee. By chance we had been by the 1st tee hours earlier when they began their round. The starter had approached the South African Van-Niekerk and told her that he would do his best to pronounce her name correctly. He was obviously hoping that she would say it for him, preferably slowly. Instead she said, “Just call me Rickie Van.” So he did, making an anonymous golfer playing thousands of miles from home even more so. But she played on, pursing her dream.

As they passed by us Narzisi and Collins were engaged in a back and forth banter that had both them and everyone within earshot laughing. Then they reached the green, and turned serious. After safely negotiating pars, the threesome made the walk to the 16th tee at Stonebridge. It’s a short but tricky par-4, with a very narrow landing area. Collins, who won the Golf Channel’s reality show “Big Break Mexico” last year, becoming the first female golfer to defeat a male opponent in an 18-hole final in the show’s history, pulled a hybrid from her bag. The shot sailed high and true, and a birdie shortly followed.

Perhaps the prize Collins won on the television show will be the biggest golf payday any of the threesome will ever see. That’s the hard; some would say realistic, assessment. But as Collins’s ball hung against the sky it was so surpassingly easy to imagine something else. At idyllic Stonebridge last weekend, the players and we fans alike were fueled by the great fusion reactor of all our games, the unending power of possibility.

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Responses

  1. Excellent report!


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