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.
 
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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
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    Perez skips Torrey, 'upset' with Ryder Cup standings

    By Will GrayJanuary 24, 2018, 2:19 am

    Pat Perez is unhappy about his standing on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list, and his situation won't improve this week.

    Perez won the CIMB Classic during the fall portion of this season, and he followed that with a T-5 finish at the inaugural CJ Cup. But he didn't receive any Ryder Cup points for either result because of a rule enacted by the American task force prior to the 2014 Ryder Cup which only awards points during the calendar year of the biennial matches as well as select events like majors and WGCs during the prior year.

    As a result, Perez is currently 17th in the American points race - behind players like Patrick Reed, Zach Johnson, Bill Haas and James Hahn, none of whom have won a tournament since the 2016 Ryder Cup - as he looks to make a U.S. squad for the first time at age 42.

    "That kind of upset me a little bit, the fact that I'm (17) on the list, but I should probably be (No.) 3 or 4," Perez told Golf Digest. "So it kind of put a bitter taste in my mouth. The fact that you win on the PGA Tour and you beat some good players, yet you don't get any points because of what our committee has decided to do."

    Perez won't be earning any points this week because he has opted to tee it up at the European Tour's Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The decision comes after Perez finished T-21 last week at the Singapore Open, and it means that the veteran is missing the Farmers Insurance Open in his former hometown of San Diego for the first time since 2001.

    Perez went to high school a few minutes from Torrey Pines, and he defeated a field that included Tiger Woods to win the junior world title on the South Course in 1993. His father, Tony, has been a longtime starter on the tournament's opening hole, and Perez was a runner-up in 2014 and tied for fourth last year.

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    Woods favored to miss Farmers Insurance Open cut

    By Will GrayJanuary 24, 2018, 1:54 am

    If the Las Vegas bookmakers are to be believed, folks in the San Diego area hoping to see Tiger Woods this week might want to head to Torrey Pines early.

    Woods is making his first competitive start of the year this week at the Farmers Insurance Open, and it will be his first official start on the PGA Tour since last year's event. He missed nearly all of 2017 because of a back injury before returning with a T-9 finish last month at the Hero World Challenge.

    But the South Course at Torrey Pines is a far different test than Albany, and the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook lists Woods as a -180 favorite to miss the 36-hole cut. It means bettors must wager $180 to win $100, while his +150 odds to make the cut mean a bettor can win $150 with a $100 wager.

    Woods is listed at 25/1 to win. He won the tournament for the seventh time in 2013, but in three appearances since he has missed the 36-hole cut, missed the 54-hole cut and withdrawn after 12 holes.

    Here's a look at the various Woods-related prop bets available at the Westgate:

    Will Woods make the 36-hole cut? Yes +150, No -180

    Lowest single-round score (both courses par 72): Over/Under 70

    Highest single-round score: Over/Under 74.5

    Will Woods finish inside the top 10? Yes +350, No -450

    Will Woods finish inside the top 20? Yes +170, No -200

    Will Woods withdraw during the tournament? Yes +650, No -1000

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    Monahan buoyed by Tour's sponsor agreements

    By Rex HoggardJanuary 24, 2018, 12:27 am

    SAN DIEGO – Farmers Insurance announced on Tuesday at Torrey Pines a seven-year extension of the company’s sponsorship of the Southern California PGA Tour event. This comes on the heels of Sony extending its sponsorship of the year’s first full-field event in Hawaii through 2022.

    Although these might seem to be relatively predictable moves, considering the drastic makeover of the Tour schedule that will begin with the 2018-19 season, it is a telling sign of the confidence corporations have in professional golf.

    “It’s a compliment to our players and the value that the sponsors are achieving,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

    Monahan said that before 2014 there were no 10-year title sponsorship agreements in place. Now there are seven events sponsored for 10-years, and another five tournaments that have agreements in place of at least seven years.

    “What it means is, it gives organizations like the Century Club [which hosts this week’s Farmers Insurance Open], when you have that level of stability on a long-term basis that allows you to invest in your product, to grow interest and to grow the impact of it,” Monahan said. “You experienced what this was like in 2010 or seen other tournaments that you don’t know what the future is.S o to go out and sell and inspire a community and you can’t state that we have a long-term agreement it’s more difficult.”

    Events like this year’s Houston Open, Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, and The National all currently don’t have title sponsors – although officials at Colonial are confident they can piece together a sponsorship package. But even that is encouraging to Monahan considering the uncertainty surrounding next season’s schedule, which will include the PGA Championship moving to May and The Players to March as well as a pre-Labor Day finish to the season.

    “When you look back historically to any given year [the number of events needing sponsors] is lower than the typical average,” Monahan said. “As we start looking to a new schedule next year, you get excited about a great schedule with a great group of partners.”

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    Day WDs from Farmers pro-am because of sore back

    By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:07 am

    SAN DIEGO – Jason Day has withdrawn from the Wednesday pro-am at the Farmers Insurance Open, citing a sore back.

    Day, the 2015 champion, played a practice round with Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau on Tuesday at Torrey Pines, and he is still expected to play in the tournament.

    Day was replaced in the pro-am by Whee Kim. 

    Making his first start since the Australian Open in November, Day is scheduled to tee off at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday alongside Jon Rahm and Brandt Snedeker.