Big Breaks Tucker Flies Under the Radar

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Duramed Futures TourThe slender Swede admits she prefers flying under the radar. And ever since she left Stockholm to play college golf for Duke University, Kristina Engstrom Tucker seemingly tucked behind others to steadily move toward her goals with a quiet determination.
 
But while the low-key player -- whose lithe 5-foot-9 frame belies either her physical strength or love of candy -- has approached each level of competition in the shadow of others, Tucker has finally emerged from her own shadow. And while her biggest steps have been far from flashy, if you ask any who have known her, none are surprised that the fifth-year pro has finally found her place in America, and in particular, in womens professional golf.
 
When we were juniors back in Sweden, she was always the best player and everybody looked up to her, said Duramed FUTURES Tour player Caroline Larsson of Stockholm. When she won, it made me want to win, too. When she left home and to play for Duke, I thought that was really cool and I wanted to go play college golf in the States, too. I have looked up to her for a long time.
 
Of course, when she arrived at Duke, this two-time Swedish Girls Champion and Swedish National Team member found herself fighting for a spot on the travel squad against such players at Brazils Candy Hannamann, Thailands Virada (OUI) Nirapathpongporn, All-American Beth Bauer of Florida, Spains Maria Garcia-Estrada, and U.S. Girls Junior champion Leigh Anne Hardin Creavy of Indiana.
 
We had the best players from at least five countries on the team at Duke, but dont let her fool you, said (Hardin) Creavy. She won her very first college tournament.
 
Still, that first year wasnt easy for Tucker, who admits she picked Duke off the Internet as a teen when she was searching for colleges with womens golf programs. She had heard of Harvard and Yale, but she didnt know the names of any other American universities.
 
I saw that Duke had good academics and golf, so I wrote the coach a letter, she said. I had no idea how lucky I was when I got to go there.
 
The first semester at Duke was tough. Tucker regularly stayed up deep into the night studying difficult concepts in a completely different language. But she was just as determined in her academics as she was in golf, improving her GPA every semester in all four years as a sociology major.
 
Of course, Tucker would often surprise her teammates. Sometimes in team practices, she would burst out singing ABBAs Dancing Queen, or she would suddenly chirp out Ha-ha, I won that one! in team chipping contests, or she would crack up the team by innocently ordering a wedgie sandwich at a golf course, rather than a veggie sandwich. It took the team a while to realize that Swedes pronounce the letters V and W the same way.
 
But the one thing they could always count on was for Tucker to produce on the golf course. She recorded 14 top-10 finishes in collegiate competition and three wins at Duke. She was a member of Dukes winning 2002 NCAA Division I Championship team, and was on the NCAA runner-up squad in 2001. Even when Hannemann and Bauer moved on to the Duramed FUTURES Tour and LPGA Tours, Tucker was still fighting for her spot on the Duke team as a senior when new talent, such as Liz Janagelo of Connecticut, arrived as a hungry freshman.
 
I played against great players every week and it made me want to improve, she said. We were pretty intense out there, but we were all the best of friends.
 
Tucker, now 27, met Paul Tucker, a member of Dukes mens golf team, when he was a junior and she was a freshman. The two dated throughout her college career and eventually married. Tucker, who had played on the mens mini-tours for a few years, encouraged his wife to pursue her golf career. He was there as her caddie at the 2006 U.S. Womens Open Championship when she tied for 20th.
 
She just plugged away at it, said Paul. The whole experience of coming down the last nine holes and hearing people yelling her name with her playing well really opened her eyes to how good she can be.
 
The 2007 season was more difficult. Tucker earned non-exempt LPGA Tour status and bounced back and forth between the LPGA and Duramed FUTURES Tours. She would play in LPGA Monday qualifiers, miss winning a spot in the tournament field, then would hustle to make new travel plans to either get back home or fly to wherever the Duramed FUTURES Tour was holding its event that week. When she missed regaining her LPGA card by one shot last fall at LPGA Q-School, Tuckers reaction was nearly expected.
 
In a way, it was almost a relief because I knew where I would be playing this year, said Tucker, who now lives with her husband in Pageland, S.C. I learned a lot last year playing in seven LPGA events, but it was a tough year.
 
With husband Paul practicing alongside, the Swede regrouped in the off-season from the disappointments of 2007. She worked hard on her swing and her putting. And she was charged up when fellow Swedish National Team member Louise Friberg won on the LPGA Tour in Mexico earlier this year, as well as when another fellow Swede, Linda Wessberg also posted solid results. Both now play on the LPGA Tour.
 
I was so happy for Louise when she won and to see her fulfill one of her dreams, said Tucker. Even though I have improved, I havent gotten to that same level, but it was really motivating to see people I have played with do well.
 
However, five tournaments into the 2008 Duramed FUTURES Tour season, Tucker used her accuracy to earn her own first professional victory in El Paso, Texas. As has been her typical progression, Tucker finished 12th in El Paso her first year, sixth in another visit and capped off this years visit with a long awaited win.
 
I couldnt hit the Refresh button fast enough on the Tours Real Time Scoring that day, admitted her husband Paul, who had to watch his wifes progress over the Internet while she was in Texas and he was in South Carolina. I was nervous all day.
 
But the Swede closed the deal on the tight-playing desert course to win by three shots. The toughest thing was to outsmart her when she returned home with a surprise party at the South Carolina course where she and Paul play. Paul had to first convince her to go with him to the club to look at his swing, then he had to lure her into the clubhouse ballroom where 75 well-wishers were gathered to toast her win in Texas.
 
It took me a few seconds to realize the party was for me, said Tucker, still blushing with embarrassment. It used to feel so strange, but Ive come to love the American culture because its so open and friendly. Here, they want to celebrate with you and when they ask you how your day was, they really are interested in your answer.
 
Tuckers final day in El Paso was a splendid hint at what the rest of her season could be. And for the precise Swede -- whose father had her perform 200 practice swings at age 9 before she could hit her first shot with a ball ' the anticipation of playing her best was everything she thought it could be. That first struck ball flew 50 yards for the youngster. And that first win for the pro moved Tucker up the Tours money list and into range to get her LPGA Tour card once again. Most of all, it reminded her of why she left home in Sweden in the first place.
 
Ive learned so much about myself, said Tucker, almost shyly. Because of golf, Ive been to 20 different countries and five different continents, traveled all over the U.S., got my education, met my husband and made so many friends. Ive seen the world and I am grateful for it, but what I have done and what I am doing is not just about results.