Swaim and Hutto, who both played golf at Auburn University, pulled their friend from the water of Alabamas Lake Martin and gunned their boat to shore for help. It was a 20-minute boat ride for the young woman in severe pain. And it was a horrifying day ' a day when youth met mortality and stared it down.
And so it was more than ironic that the three friends just happened to be together today when Rankin -- once told she would never play golf again -- won her first professional golf tournament at the Northwest Indiana Futures Golf Classic presented by The Horseshoe Casino. The second-year player from Hilton Head Island, S.C. fired a final-round 70 at Innsbrook Country Club and survived a two-hole playoff against Soo Young Moon of Keumsan, Korea, who posted a 69 to tie Rankin at 211 (-5).
'Its been a long road,' said Rankin, choking back tears on the 18th green as fellow Futures Tour player Swaim, of Duluth, Ga., and Hutto, a recent Auburn graduate, watched the awards ceremony. 'I just feel very fortunate to even be able to play golf again.'
Rankin showed incredible poise against hard-charging Moon, who won earlier this season, and Ju Kim of Seoul, Korea, who was tied for the lead until she took bogey at the 18th hole with a chip and a missed par-saving putt from 12 feet. Kim finished third at 212 (-4) with a 1-over 73.
But Rankin didnt wait for others to fall off the pace. She chipped away at the lead all day when she birdied the fifth hole, saved par from 20 feet on the seventh, then made the nine-hole turn sharing the lead with Kim and Isabelle Beisiegel of Norman, Okla. But Beisiegel bogeyed twice on the back nine and fell to fourth place at 213 (-3) with a 75. As Kim dropped out of the sudden-death playoff at the 18th green, Moon and Rankin replayed the last hole twice.
'Reilley never got flustered and she played smart,' said caddie Danny Huber, a friend of Rankins family who has caddied for 22 years for such PGA Tour pros as Billy Mayfair and Lee Janzen. 'She was not going to be denied this week.'
Moon and Rankin both recorded par on the first playoff hole, with Rankin two-putting from 20 feet and Moon getting up and down for par from 16 feet. On the next visit to the 18th green, Rankins approach landed 15 feet to the right of the hole, which she two putted for par. Moons approach landed 60 feet below the hole on the front of the green and her first putt stopped eight feet short. Her par attempt spun out, leaving a tap-in putt for bogey and giving Rankin her first professional paycheck worth $9,100 in the $65,000 event.
Wearing her red and black Georgia team colors, Rankin looked right at her friends standing greenside and raised her arms. Then the tears came all over again, one week shy of four years from the day she thought her golf had ended.
'Reilleys had to battle a lot more than most people and shes gone through a lot of pain and suffering,' said Swaim, who missed the two-day cut. 'But shes incredibly driven and incredibly talented. That makes a great combination. Shes just a special person.'
And with her victory, Rankin moved closer toward her dream of someday playing on the LPGA Tour. She jumped from 17th to fourth on the Futures Tour money list with earnings of $17,410 in seven events. But most importantly were the answers to the questions she had asked herself that day in the boat speeding toward the shore.
'I asked myself if I was going to live,' said Rankin quietly. 'And I asked if I was going to be able to play golf again. I know the only reason Im here is my passion for this. I was determined to see this through. Believe me, Im grateful for every opportunity I have.'