Dying Mothers Dream Realized at Ginn Open

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Like so many 13-year-olds, Dakoda Dowd has big plans.
 
She wants to live in a New York apartment when she heads to college in five years. She'll be a bass guitar player by then. Maybe even a champion figure skater, too.
 
Barring a miracle, her cancer-ridden mother won't be around to see her daughter -- one of the country's top golfers her age -- realize any of those dreams. But mother and daughter will get to share another one real soon.
 
'This isn't about golf,' Dakoda says. 'This is about my mom, and her getting to see me play.'
 
Kelly Jo Dowd's wish -- perhaps her dying one -- is to see her little girl compete against the world's best. So Dakoda, a winner of countless junior events, will tee it up in the LPGA's Ginn Open near Orlando on April 27-30, after the Ginn Resorts heard of the family's plight and extended the invitation.
 
'It will mean everything to me,' says Kelly Jo, who is fighting cancer for the second time in four years. 'It's obviously a dream come true. There's no other way to put it. I'm going to take that day as one of the most special days in my whole entire life. This is a chance for me to do what I want to do.'
 
What she wants to do is this: Let women know she has terminal bone and liver cancer -- and, realistically, only months to live - because she didn't heed the warning signs. She ignored a lump and waited months to get checked. And through Dakoda's golf, the family hopes to get that message out to the masses, in part from the hubbub generated by the girl's appearance in the LPGA event.
 
But this is no publicity stunt. She can play.
 
'She's got talent,' says Annika Sorenstam, one of Dakoda's idols and the women's top-ranked player who met her earlier this month and watched her swing. 'She can really hit the ball. She's got a great head on her shoulders. She's really strong and her attitude is really something great.'
 
The story really begins about five years ago.
 
Dakoda was 8 and already earning national acclaim for her golf potential, becoming the subject of magazine articles that are framed and displayed in the living room of the family's tiny condo in a Tampa suburb.
 
It was December 2001, and Kelly Jo -- a former Hooters calendar cover girl who worked her way out of the orange waitress shorts and into the company's management team -- noticed a lump in her breast.
 
She was 36 years old. Ten months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
 
'I'm not supposed to get this disease,' Kelly Jo says. 'I'm not obese. I don't smoke. I drink, but not nearly like I used to. There wasn't breast cancer in my family. I'm not a statistic. But I got it.'
 
So she fought it. Double mastectomy. Nearly two dozen lymph nodes removed. Intense chemotherapy. Every hair on her body fell out, her skin lost its glow and she felt nothing like the head-turner she once was.
 
'There's something that keeps me young at heart and willing to fight,' Kelly Jo says. 'And that's Dakoda. She's why I keep fighting. In the beginning, I wasn't going to. And how stupid was that? It's embarrassing for me to admit that. Anyone who doesn't fight and fight with their all is stupid.'
 
The first fight seemed won -- until last May, when doctors found the cancer was back and worse than ever, now in her hip bone, her liver and nearing her spine. This time, Kelly Jo vows to fight harder; she started another round of chemotherapy April 6.
 
'When we had the opportunity to give Dakoda an exemption, I really didn't think about it,' says Bobby Ginn, the CEO of Ginn Clubs and Resorts. 'The strength they have individually and collectively is just unbelievable. I don't know if I could stand up to the pressure they're feeling right now.'
 
Kelly Jo met Mike Dowd in the mid-1980s at the Hooters restaurant where she worked. They'd strike up the occasional conversation, and eventually started dating. Eleven weeks later, they were married, and 5 1/2 years after that, they had a daughter to whom they gave a unique name.
 
Mike had two older daughters from a previous marriage, both of whom have names that begin with 'K.' He wanted to keep that trend going, but Kelly Jo preferred the name 'Dakota.' Eventually, they agreed on 'Dakoda,' which Mike shortened to 'Koda.'
 
'Got my 'K' in there,' he says.
 
She started golfing at 4, and made her first birdie before she turned 7. She's shot 70 from the men's tees and would be in the mid-60s if she played from shorter ones, her father says. She hits her driver long and true, and is confident enough to have photographers stand 30 yards in front of her while she swings.
 
'I won't hit you,' she calls out.
 
Sure enough, the photographer is unharmed, although Dakoda giggles when one ball whizzes a little closer to his head than he'd like.
 
'This family is almost like the perfect storm in this,' says Hooters co-founder Ed Droste, whose chain has raised more than $56,000 for the Dowd family and their medical expenses. 'Kelly Jo and Mike just want to tell it like it is for women. And Dakoda is the blend of these two great people. I just dread when it's down to being two of them, because the three of them together are so great.'
 
Golf, Dakoda says, is a release from the reality of her family's situation -- even though the reminders are everywhere when she plays. There's a pink breast cancer ribbon embroidered on her bag, and her mother's initials 'KJ' are embossed in pink letters on her irons and putter cover.
 
Her father wears the initials, too. On his right wrist is a tattoo with the initials 'KJD' with two ribbons for his wife, and 'DFD' with a cross for his daughter. The 'F' stands for Flowie, Dakoda's middle name and the name of a sister Mike Dowd lost to ovarian cancer in 1991.
 
'I want it to be at the forefront of my life for the rest of my life,' says Mike, a counselor in the Pinellas County school system. 'This whole process has been one horrible thing and 100 great things. It's tragedy and triumph. Every day, people treat my wife the way God wanted us to all treat each other. How many of us get that opportunity?'
 
Now that they're down to one income, the family sold its home and moved into a 600-foot condo at the Westin Innisbrook resort, site of the PGA TOUR's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and where Hooters arranged for Dakoda -- who sleeps in the living room -- to play golf whenever she wants.
 
'The only thing I really, really want is for my mom to be better,' Dakoda says. 'And my own room.'
 
They are, by all accounts, a regular family. They eat at Whataburger, McDonald's and Olive Garden. They just have a girl who hits a golf ball better than most people, and a mother who's sicker than most.
 
With her dream about to come true, one of Kelly Jo's outlets these days is trying to raise money for groups such as MakingMemories.org, which grants wishes to people diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She and Dakoda also schedule mother-daughter days, so both can get their shopping fix.
 
Most importantly, though, the family just wants to be together, for whatever time they have left.
 
'Anything special that Dakoda does that I'm able to be here to see is the next special thing for us,' Kelly Jo says. 'It could be a tournament she wins. A day of shopping. Going to a concert together. Whatever comes next is what's special. The bottom line is it'll be her and me together, at least a little while longer.'
 
Related Links
  • Full Coverage - Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open
     
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