Love of the Game

By Mercer BaggsApril 18, 2008, 4:00 pm
2007 Ginn OpenREUNION, Fla. -- Fairytale endings are often reserved for the story books. The dnouement isnt always what we want it to be. No matter how much we may want it. Sometimes, though, its the post script that proves most memorable, the one authored by a persons reactions to real life events.
For eight years, Stephanie Sparks had been absent from LPGA competition. Now, granted an opportunity to return, she wanted to play just two more days.
Knowing that she needed to shoot something in the red Friday at the Ginn Open, she stood at even par for the day, 3 over for the tournament, through 12 holes of her second round. One over was the target number, but a bogey at 13 and another at 15 ended any chance she had at making her goal of making the cut.
Trying to finish on a positive note, Sparks hit her approach shot to 6 inches on the par-5 17th and made birdie. She then reached the par-4 18th green in two, leaving her about 50 feet and two putts from an impressive, if not completely self-satisfying performance. Her first putt finished 5 feet right of the hole. Her second putt lipped out and ran 5 feet past. Her third putt barely scared the hole. Her fourth putt finally fell.
A Disney ending this was not.
For the second straight day, Sparks made four birdies, eight pars, five bogeys and one double bogey, adding up to back-to-back 3-over-par 75s. She finished two rounds in a tie for 118th.
Immediately afterwards, she danced.
Upon finally getting her ball to fall on the home hole, Sparks did a little shimmy coming off the green, much to the delight of her fans which grew in number throughout the day. She issued a few hugs to her playing competitors over the two rounds, Sophie Giquel and Jimin Jeong, and then went off to sign her scorecard as a small legion cheered her on.
This was a very important moment in her life and she wasnt going to let it be remembered, by her or by anyone else in witness, as dour.
This was a wonderful, wonderful experience, she said. The feelings and emotions were pretty powerful.
There wasnt a throng of reporters to greet her after she exited the scorers tent. Just a local TV reporter who asked her some feel-good questions. And one writer, a friend, who made her cry ' twice.
Walking down 18, I just took it all in, she said. I did a lot of looking around, a lot of being in the moment. To be honest, I knew I couldnt make the cut so I wanted to enjoy the moment because I thought, This might be it.
Do you think youll play again, the writer asked, even if its just one more time on a sponsors exemption?
For two days, Stephanie Sparks had experienced a wide variety of emotions. There were smiles and fist pumps, gritted teeth and clubs thumped against the ground. And she loved every minute of it. The thought of never being able to experience those feelings again, the ones unique to professional competition, was a little overwhelming.
Youre going to make me cry, she said. And then she walked away to shed a few tears in private.
Did he make you cry? a fan waiting for an autograph asked Sparks as she returned. Kick him in the knee!
Stephanie laughed and told her friend, At least I had the opportunity to miss one more cut.
In 2000, Sparks' lone season on the LPGA, she played 21 tournament and missed 20 cuts. She tied for 69th at the Electrolux USA Championship for a cool $997.
If money wasnt an issue Id love to play golf for a living. Standing in the ninth fairway (her 18th hole Thursday), I told my caddie, This is the greatest job ever, she said.
But, I like the comfort of knowing Im getting a guaranteed paycheck every two weeks.
Two back surgeries forced Sparks into early retirement. She then landed a gig as a producer at Golf Channel, which later led to some on-air opportunities for shows such as Big Break and Golf With Style!.
At the beginning of 2008, she received a phone call from Bobby Ginn asking her if she wanted a sponsors exemption into his tournament. She gladly accepted and spent three months preparing for this one week. She trained at the ANNIKA Academy, housed at Reunion, under the eye of Annika Sorenstams swing coach Henri Reis. She also worked out with personal trainer and sports nutritionist Kai Fusser.
Fusser worked on strengthening her core while Reis tried to help her obtain a repeatable swing that wouldnt put too much strain on her back.
Both were successful; though, Reis couldnt convince Sparks to upgrade her equipment.
Using the same clubs she has for more than a decade ' Callaway Biggest Big Bertha driver (and not the one with the super-sized head), Callaway Steelhead irons, Titleist wedges, and a Scotty Cameron Newport Two putter ' Sparks set off to tackle a course she had played in preparation too many times to remember.
But, as she said after Thursdays round, It was an entirely different course from when I practiced on it.
After opening in 75 on the slick greens and rolling mounds of Reunion, Sparks returned for her 7:15 a.m. tee time Friday - the first group out. Living about a half-hour away from the course, she still didnt get out of bed till 5. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a morning person. I have a philosophy that I never set my alarm for any time that starts with a 4, she said.
After hitting balls in the pitch black, she made her way to the first hole to play Round 2 proper. Thursday, while teeing off on the 10th hole at 1:05 p.m., she had a following of 25 or so friends. This time, barely past 7 in the morning, she had 6 ' and the writer.
After parring her first six holes she bogeyed Nos. 7 and 8 to fall to 5 over. She responded, however, with a 15-foot downhill birdie putt on 9, which she read perfectly and barely had to tap to get it moving, and another birdie at 10 from 4 feet. She was back to even par for the day at 3 over, and back in contention to play on the weekend.
There was only one thing on my mind today, she said, making the cut.
A poor drive at the par-4 11th led to her taking an unplayable lie and a bogey. She got it right back by making another 15-footer for birdie at 12. But bogeys on 13 and 15 sealed her fate, the latter the result of a shot she thought had finished on the green but one that ran through into the rough.
While her first round was filled with smiles and pleasantries exchanged between her and her following, Round 2 was admittedly more intense. There were a few more vocal outbursts on this day, a few more clubs forcefully removed from and stuck into her bag. She was being competitive, what she calls, the greatest feeling.
After a good drive and a solid lay-up shot on the par-5 17th, Sparks hit the best shot by anyone in her group over the course of two days, an approach to half-a-foot. She tapped in for birdie and looked to wrap everything up with a nice, tidy par at the last. But 18 was a bit of a mess.
I think my mind had checked out by the time I got to the green, she said. I was just trying to soak it all in and lost my focus.'
I should have made the cut,' she lamented. 'I just made a couple of stupid mistakes.
The way in which she finished mattered little to her friends, a number which steadily increased throughout the day. After her little dance off of 18, they applauded as if she was leading the tournament.
How much did that support mean to you these two days, the writer asked Stephanie.
Youre going to make me cry again, she said. And she did.
It was I had a lot of support. Whether it was friends or people who knew me from TV or volunteers, everyone was so kind and cheered me on. That means the world to me, she said.
One of those friends was her caddie, Arron Crewes, who attended Duke University with Sparks, and flew down from his home in Akron, Ohio to be on her bag.
She played great, he said. For someone who hadnt played on tour in eight years I think she did very well for herself.
After a prestigious amateur career, which included an All-America stint at Duke; a Western Womens Amateur championship; an Eastern Womens Amateur championship; and the North and South Amateur Championship, and one full trip around the LPGA, Stephanie Sparks' competitive career may have come to an end Friday at Reunion.
Then again
Who knows? Maybe I will get another sponsors exemption, another event like this, she said. Im definitely addicted to the feeling of competing and playing. To be able to do that one more time would certainly be a dream.
But if this is the end, shes OK with that, too: This time I felt like I had the opportunity to say goodbye. I didnt get that before.
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
Related Links:
  • Stephanie Sparks photo gallery from Round 2 of the Ginn Open
  • Stephanie Sparks in Round 1 of the Ginn Open
  • Stephanie Sparks photo gallery from Round 1
  • Full Coverage - Ginn Open
  • Baggs Check Archive
  • Getty Images

    Montana parents can't watch kids play high school golf

    By Grill Room TeamDecember 11, 2017, 9:47 pm

    Well, this is a one new one.

    According to a report from KTVQ in Montana, this line in the Montana State High School Association rule book all but forbids spectators from observing high school golf in that state:

    “No spectators/fans are allowed on the course except for certain locations as designated by the tournament manager and club professional.”

    Part of the issue, according to the report, is that most courses don't bother to designate those "certain locations" leaving parents unable to watch their kids compete.

    “If you tell a parent that they can’t watch their kid play in the Thanksgiving Day football game, they would riot,” Chris Kelley, a high school golf parent, told KTVQ.

    The report lists illegal outside coaching as one of the rule's chief motivations, but Montana State women's golf coach Brittany Basye doesn't quite buy that.

    “I can go to a softball game and I can sit right behind the pitcher. I can make hand signals,” she is quoted in the report. “I can yell out names. I can do the same thing on a softball field that might affect that kid. Football games we can yell as loud as we want when someone is making a pass or a catch.”

    The MHSA has argued that unlike other sports that are played in a confined area, the sprawling nature of a golf course would make it difficult to hire enough marshals to keep unruly spectators in check.

    Meanwhile, there's a lawyer quoted in the report claiming this is some kind of civil rights issue.

    Worth note, Montana is one of only two states that doesn't allow spectators on the course. The other state, Alaska, does not offer high school golf.

    PGA Tour suspends Hensby for anti-doping violation

    By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 11, 2017, 8:02 pm

    Mark Hensby has been suspended for one year by the PGA Tour for violating the Tour’s anti-doping policy by failing to provide a sample after notification.

    The Tour made the announcement Monday, reporting that Hensby will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.

    The statement reads:

    The PGA Tour announced today that Mark Hensby has violated the Tour Anti-Doping Policy for failing to provide a drug testing sample after notification and has been suspended for a period of one year. He will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.

    Hensby, 46, won the John Deere Classic in 2004. He played the Tour this past year, playing just 14 events. He finished 142nd on the money list. He once ranked among the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking but ranks No. 1,623 today.

    The Sunshine Tour recently suspended player Etienne Bond for one year for failing a drug test. Players previously suspended by the PGA Tour for violating the anti-doping policy include Scott Stallings and Doug Barron.

    The PGA Tour implemented revisions to its anti-doping program with the start of the 2017-18 season. The revisions include blood testing and the supplementation of the Tour’s prohibited list to include all of the substances and methods on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. As part of this season’s revisions, the Tour announced it would also begin reporting suspensions due to recreational drug use.

    The Tour said it would not issue further comment on Hensby's suspension.

    Good time to hang up on viewer call-ins

    By Randall MellDecember 11, 2017, 7:40 pm

    Golf announced the most massive layoff in the industry’s history on Monday morning.

    Armchair referees around the world were given their pink slips.

    It’s a glorious jettisoning of unsolicited help.

    Goodbye and good riddance.

    The USGA and R&A’s announcement of a new set of protocols Monday will end the practice of viewer call-ins and emails in the reporting of rules infractions.

    “What we have heard from players and committees is ‘Let’s leave the rules and administration of the event to the players and those responsible for running the tournament,’” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status.


    The protocols, formed by a working group that included the PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, Ladies European Tour and the PGA of America, also establish the use of rules officials to monitor the televised broadcasts of events.

    Additionally, the protocols will eliminate the two-shot penalty when a player signs an incorrect scorecard because the player was unaware of a violation.

    Yes, I can hear you folks saying armchair rules officials help make sure every meaningful infraction comes to light. I hear you saying they make the game better, more honest, by helping reduce the possibility somebody violates the rules to win.

    But at what cost?

    The chaos and mayhem armchair referees create can ruin the spirit of fair play every bit as much as an unreported violation. The chaos and mayhem armchair rules officials create can be as much a threat to fair play as the violations themselves.

    The Rules of Golf are devised to protect the integrity of the game, but perfectly good rules can be undermined by the manner and timeliness of their enforcement.

    We have seen the intervention of armchair referees go beyond the ruin of fair play in how a tournament should be conducted. We have seen it threaten the credibility of the game in the eyes of fans who can’t fathom the stupidity of a sport that cannot separate common-sense enforcement from absolute devotion to the letter of the law.

    In other sports, video review’s timely use helps officials get it right. In golf, video review too often makes it feel like the sport is getting it wrong, because timeliness matters in the spirit of fair play, because the retroactive nature of some punishments are as egregious as the violations themselves.  

    We saw that with Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration this year.

    Yes, she deserved a two-shot penalty for improperly marking her ball, but she didn’t deserve the two-shot penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard. She had no idea she was signing an incorrect scorecard.

    We nearly saw the ruin of the U.S. Open at Oakmont last year, with Dustin Johnson’s victory clouded by the timing of a video review that left us all uncertain if the tournament was playing out under an incorrect scoreboard.

    “What these protocols are put in place for, really, is to make sure there are measures to identify the facts as soon as possible, in real time, so if there is an issue to be dealt with, that it can be handled quickly and decisively,” Pagel said.

    Amen again.

    We have pounded the USGA for making the game more complicated and less enjoyable than it ought to be, for creating controversy where common sense should prevail, so let’s applaud executive director Mike Davis, as well as the R&A, for putting common sense in play.

    Yes, this isn’t a perfect answer to handling rules violations.

    There are trap doors in the protocols that we are bound to see the game stumble into, because the game is so complex, but this is more than a good faith effort to make the game better.

    This is good governance.

    And compared to the glacial pace of major rules change of the past, this is swift.

    This is the USGA and R&A leading a charge.

    We’re seeing that with the radical modernization of the Rules of Golf scheduled to take effect in 2019. We saw it with the release of Decision 34/3-10 three weeks after Thompson’s loss at the ANA, with the decision limiting video review to “reasonable judgment” and “naked eye” standards. We’re hearing it with Davis’ recent comments about the “horrible” impact distance is having on the game, leading us to wonder if the USGA is in some way gearing up to take on the golf ball.

    Yes, the new video review protocols aren’t a panacea. Rules officials will still miss violations that should have been caught. There will be questions about level playing fields, about the fairness of stars getting more video review scrutiny than the rank and file. There will be questions about whether viewer complaints were relayed to rules officials.

    Golf, they say, isn’t a game of perfect, and neither is rules enforcement, though these protocols make too much sense to be pilloried. They should be applauded. They should solve a lot more problems than they create.

    Lexi 'applaud's USGA, R&A for rules change

    By Randall MellDecember 11, 2017, 5:15 pm

    Lexi Thompson’s pain may prove to be the rest of golf’s gain.

    David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of governance, acknowledged on Golf Channel’s "Morning Drive" Monday that the new protocols that will eliminate the use of TV viewer call-ins and emails to apply penalties was hastened by the controversy following Thompson’s four-shot penalty at the ANA Inspiration in early April. The new protocols also set up rules officials to monitor TV broadcasts beginning next year.

    “Clearly, that case has been something of a focus point for us,” Rickman said.

    Thompson reacted to the new protocols in an Instagram post.

    “I applaud the USGA and the R&A for their willingness to revise the Rules of Golf to address certain unfortunate situations that have arisen several times in the game of golf,” Thompson wrote. “In my case, I am thankful no one else will have to deal with an outcome such as mine in the future.”

    Thompson was penalized two shots for improperly returning her ball to its mark on a green during Saturday’s round after a viewer emailed LPGA officials during Sunday’s broadcast. She was penalized two more shots for signing an incorrect scorecard for her Saturday round. Thompson ultimately lost in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

    The new protocols will also eliminate the additional two-shot penalty a player receives for failing to include a penalty when a player was unaware of the penalty.

    Shortly after the ANA Inspiration, the USGA and R&A led the formation of a video review working group, which included the PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, Ladies European Tour and PGA of America.

    Also, just three weeks after Thompson was hit with the four-shot penalty, the USGA and R&A released a new Rules of Golf decision decision (34-3/10) limiting video evidence in two ways:

    1. If an infraction can’t be seen with the naked eye, there’s no penalty, even if video shows otherwise.

    2. If a tournament committee determines that a player does “all that can be reasonably expected to make an accurate estimation or measurement” in determining a line or position to play from or to spot a ball, then there will be no penalty even if video replay later shows that to be wrong.

    While the USGA and R&A said the new decision wasn’t based on Thompson’s ANA incident, LPGA players immediately began calling it the “Lexi Rule.”