Future Bright for Big Breaks Tucker

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Duramed Futures TourAsk any of her former Duke University teammates and none of them will say they were surprised about Kristina Engstrom Tucker's performance at the recent U.S. Women's Open Championship.
 
Of 17 members of the Duramed FUTURES Tour who qualified for this year's Open, only Tucker survived the 36-hole cut. And not only did she make it to the final two rounds, but the native of Stockholm, Sweden tied for 20th. It was a finish that qualified her for the 2007 U.S. Women's Open in Southern Pines, N.C. -- only a short trip down the highway from where she played college golf.
 
And of eight standout Blue Devils in the Open, including last year's co-runner-up Brittany Lang and former NCAA individual champions Candy Hannemann and Virada (Oui) Nirapathpongporn, it was the slender Swede who stepped up at the biggest event in women's professional golf.
 
'I'm not surprised at all,' said former Tour member and former Duke teammate Kalen Anderson, who is now the assistant women's golf coach at Duke. 'As a freshman, Kristina won her second college event and I knew right away she was going to be a good player.'
 
Reed-thin, Tucker is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but her huge desire was evident earlier this year when she competed on The Golf Channel's 'Big Break V: Hawaii' show. Even at the Open, fans in the gallery shouted her name and made reference to the 'Big Break' show. What they didn't realize was that her performance at this year's Open was, indeed, the big break she has needed for a dose of confidence heading into the season's final six Duramed FUTURES Tour tournaments. A tie for 20th alongside such notables as Lorena Ochoa and a career-high payday of $41,654 gave Tucker a new boost in her young professional career.
 
'It was fun to be out there with so many people cheering for me,' said Tucker, 26, who now lives in Pageland, S.C., with husband Paul Tucker. 'Some people told me they had driven hours to come watch me play. It makes me happy that I can inspire other people to play golf or to enjoy watching golf.
 
'And the whole week taught me that my game isn't that far away from being up there with players on the LPGA Tour,' she added. 'I played with some great players at the Open and I got to see how they managed their game. They didn't hit every shot perfectly. Now I know if I can play well, I can be there with them.'
 
Tucker was there with them. After the first two rounds on rain-soaked and long-playing fairways at Newport Country Club, the slender Swede was ranked second in the tournament field in greens in regulation. The secret?
 
'I hit my fairway woods and driver really well and I wasn't in the rough that much,' she said. 'Longer courses suit me better and making pars is easier than making birdies.'
 
Interestingly, when Tucker arrived in the States as a freshman, it was her short game that helped her become a two-time winner of the Swedish Girls' Championship (1997, 1998). And it was her mental game that enabled her to win three college titles and to record seven top-10 collegiate finishes, as well as to endure a tough start at an academically challenging university with English as her second language.
 
'Even though we had a great team, I was really, really homesick at Duke and I called home and cried every day for two months,' she said.
 
'She was almost mute during her first semester here because she said nothing,' said Anderson. 'She struggled with the language and she couldn't understand the professors.'
 
But while Tucker was quiet during that transition period, Anderson said the Swede 'just observed everything' and suddenly became a 'chatterbox.' By the second semester, she 'got everything.'
 
Of course, her Swedish accent -- on an already international team with players from Thailand, Brazil and Spain -- made her an easy target for her teammates. Using the letters V and W interchangeably in Swedish, the team never let her forget when they had her call the front desk of their hotel and ask where the 'wending machine' was located. Tucker didn't even know what a vending machine was.
 
'That's when we started calling her 'Inga From Sweden',' said Anderson. 'That's what we still call her.'
 
Former Duke teammate Leigh Anne Hardin recalls asking Tucker at one tournament if she wanted a turkey or veggie sandwich.
 
'She said she wanted a weggie,' said Hardin.
 
And so the fun began. But while Tucker appears to be all business on the golf course, she also has learned to cut loose. A few years ago, she and two other Swedes -- Anna Knutsson and Louise Friberg -- were spotted crammed into a golf cart together during a Tuesday practice round, singing ABBA songs at the top of their lungs and shimmying along in the cart on the way to their next shots. The singing Swedes helped make Tucker's next transition from college golf to the Duramed FUTURES Tour easier in her 2004 rookie season.
 
'I was used to traveling with the [Duke] team, so there were those lonely times in the beginning,' said Tucker of her rookie start. 'I learned a lot, but I wasn't happy with my game. I learned pretty quickly that you have to go out there and do your job even if you don't feel like practicing.'
 
Tucker had to requalify for the Tour at the end of the 2004 season, finishing 101st in earnings and making seven of 14 tournament cuts. By the 2005 season, she still struggled with some technical aspects of her swing while her mental game improved, but by season's end, she had improved to No. 56 and had made 11 of 15 cuts. She also fired a career-low round of 67 in her final tournament and finished tied for eighth in Indiana for her best Tour finish.
 
The Big Break show was filmed last fall following the 2005 season and when Tucker showed up this spring to kick off the Tour's 2006 schedule, she had a different spark in her eye and a new tool in her bag.
 
'Competing in the Big Break helped me learn to control my nerves,' she said. 'It made me realize that I can be nervous, but still pull off shots even if my hands are shaking.'
 
And that was a tool that definitely helped at the Open two weeks ago. With husband Paul (who played golf for the Duke men's team) on her bag and her family and in-laws following in her gallery, Kristina Tucker finally looked like the confident amateur player from Sweden, the confident college player from Duke and the confident survivor from the Big Break TV show.
 
'I know she's skinny, but she hits it hard,' said Anderson. 'And the U.S. Women's Open is a great place to showcase your talent. Anybody in that field is good enough to make the cut and play great and she's certainly good enough to play with the best. I hope she realizes that. Hopefully her performance there will spark other great things for the rest of the year.'
 
After Hardin missed the cut in Indiana two weeks ago, she drove to Rhode Island to watch her former Duke teammate play her final round at the Open. She wanted to be there to support the Swede, who is a year older. She wanted to see her take the next big step after three years of college golf and two years on the Duramed FUTURES Tour together.
 
'At the Open, she was very comfortable and it was fun to watch her play with such confidence,' said Hardin. 'A top-20 finish out there is pretty great.'
 
But Tucker's teammate and Tour travel companion believes the recent major championship could be just the catalyst the Swede needs this year.
 
'I don't think she's played to her potential on the [Duramed] FUTURES Tour,' added Hardin. 'Golf is a hard game because there are a lot of peaks and valleys. Inga just has to keep it going because she's on the right track.'
 
And with such highlights on her resume as Swedish national titles, an NCAA team championship (2002) and now a top-20 finish at the U.S. Women's Open, truly the quiet Swede has something to sing about.