Im trying really, really, really hard to smile right now, she said after signing for a 3-over-par 75.
Im a little angry right now, she added with a smile.
Stephanie Sparks competed in an official LPGA event for the first time since September, 2000, when she teed it up on a sponsors exemption at the Ginn Open. And for someone who hadnt played a competitive round on tour in nearly eight years, she acquitted herself quite nicely.
Sparks, an on-air talent for Golf Channel for the past four years, was granted an invite to play outside of her Orlando home by tournament founder Bobby Ginn. She accepted without hesitation, gave her good buddy Arron Crewes a call and began preparations.
Crewes last caddied for Sparks during her 2001 attempt to get through the LPGA Qualifying Tournament. It didnt pan out and soon after Sparks traded in her clubs for a production job at Golf Channel, which ultimately led to on-air gigs for shows like Big Break, Golf With Style! and Golf Central updates.
Upon hearing that Sparks was returning to action, Crewes booked a plane ticket from his home in Akron, Ohio to reunite with his former Duke Blue Devils classmate.
I think she did extremely well, Crewes, who graduate a year ahead of Sparks, said. She got off to a shaky start but she came back and played really well.
At Duke, Sparks was an All-American and an amateur sensation. She won the Womens Western Amateur, the Womens Eastern Amateur, the West Virginia State Amateur and the North and South Womens Amateur at Pinehurst. She graduated in 1996 and bounced around on the mini tours until finally earning her LPGA card for the 2000 season. She played 21 times that year. She made one cut ' and a total of $997.
A pair of back surgeries put the nail in her professional coffin, but she returned to life this Thursday. And alive was just what she felt.
Its been a while since Ive had this feeling, she said. It was wonderful. Amen to that feeling.
At 12:06 p.m. ET, Sparks made her way to the range at Reunion to prepare for her 1:05 tee time. Here is an account of her day:
One hour from her tee time, Stephanie is looking for her caddie. Arron Crewes is already standing on the range, carrying her light-weight Golf Channel insignia bag, waving to get her attention. The two finally make a connection and set off to warm up. After hitting her first shot thin with a wedge, Stephanie starts to relax. A few shots later she looks to her left and there is world No. 4 Paula Creamer. To her right is two-time tour winner Angela Stanford. In the scheduled group in front of her today is Creamer, Solheim Cup player Nicole Castrale and world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa. Surprisingly, the nerves havent really kicked in yet.
I wasnt as nervous as I thought I would be, Sparks says post round. I felt kind of calm.
Par-4 10th, 528 yards:
Prior to being announced on the first tee, for the first time in a long time, Stephanie walks to the left side of the tee box to be by herself. She takes six practice swings and one big breath, before heading back over to her threesome, which includes second-year tour player Sophie Giquel and tour rookie Jimin Jeong. Hitting last in the group, Stephanie pipes a drive straight and true down the center of the fairway, nearly losing her balance on the follow through. The crowd, a steady following of friends that numbers about 25, roars in applause. Stephanie lays up into the left rough with her second shot. Her third shot lands 10 feet left of the hole. After running her birdie effort on the baked, slick greens 3 feet past, she pulls her par effort off the heel of her putter, settling for bogey.
The nerves showed up early with the putter. It was a tough start.
Par-4 11th, 365 yards:
And one that would only get tougher. After a great greenside bunker shot to 3 feet, Stephanie again misses her short par effort, this time with a cruel lip out. Two holes, two missed 3-footers, 2 over par.
At that point I just needed something to go my way.'
Par-3 12th, 153 yards:
Trying to keep that smile on her face, Stephanie exchanges a few laughs with Arron. She then steps up and knocks her tee shot 15 feet left of the hole. Faced with a testy right-to-left putt, she finally gets a putt to fall to get back to 1 over.
Its working again, she says while walking to the 13th hole, happily rubbing the face of her Scotty Cameron Newport Two putter.
Par-4 13th, 408 yards:
By course handicap, this is the toughest hole at Reunion. Stephanie smokes another drive down the center of the fairway. Contrary to the rest of the players in her group ' and most likely the entire field ' Stephanie is not employing the finest in golf technology. Rather, she is using the same clubs she had during her one LPGA run eight years ago, the same set she has had for more than a decade ' Callaway Steelhead irons, Titleist wedges, and a Biggest Big Bertha driver that looked like something you could get for 15 bucks at Play It Again Sports. But it had been effective so far. The rest of her game, however, had been a little shaky. Stephanie pushes her approach shot into the right greenside bunker and the ball nestles on a side slope. She fails to advance her third shot out of the hazard and goes on to make double bogey to fall to 3 over.
How did that stay on the hill? she asks incredulously on her way to the next hole.
Par-4 14th, 387 yards:
While making her way to the 14th, Stephanie is approached by someone she recognizes. The man gives her a hug and offers some encouraging words. Stephanie chats briefly, thanks him for his well wishes and jokes, Got the bad ones out of the way early. Even after a double, she still manages a smile. After another good tee shot ' the longest in her group ' Stephanie hits her approach shot to 20 feet, two-putts and walks away with a 4.
Par! she exclaims with a giant grin.
Par-5 17th, 508 yards:
After two more pars, Stephanie is approached by someone else from the gallery on her way to the 17th tee, this time a close friend. Have fun, he says. Oh, Im having a blast, she replies. A large part of the good times could be attributed to the support she was receiving. Whether I made birdie or bogey, they always clapped for me, Stephanie later said. Its just been amazing. And trust me, Ive needed that. Stephanie tries to give them reason to cheer on this relatively short par-5. Another solid tee shot gives her the option of going for the green in two. She accepts the challenge. But even with the wind at her back, her Steelhead metal wood comes up short of the green in a front-side bunker, leaving her with an awkward distance of about 25 yards. With the pin on the back tier, Stephanie hits a brilliant sand shot, running her ball right over the edge of the cup and 10 feet past, where she two-putts for par.
I didnt start off well, but once I settled in I started to gain confidence.'
Par-4 18th, 421 yards:
An errant tee shot leaves her stranded in a left-hand bunker. She can only advance her ball back to the fairway and eventually has a 12-foot putt for par. She misses and makes the turn in 4-over 40. The crowd cheers nonetheless and, after a turn of the visor to the side, Stephanie rewards them with a minor fist pump.
I knew I wasnt out of it. I still had nine holes to play and a chance to get back to even par.
Par-3 2nd, 146 yards:
After a par at the first, her 10th hole of the day, Stephanie and company are told by a tour official that they have been placed on the clock. Unfazed, she hits her tee shot to 15 feet, makes the birdie putt, and gets back to 3 over for the tournament.
That felt really, really good. That was kind of a jumpstart.'
Par-4 4th, 356 yards:
Stephanie pushes her tee shot to the right and her ball rests against the cart path. Upon taking relief, she strikes a beautiful iron shot to 15 feet and makes the birdie to inch closer to level par at 2 over.
I really felt like I had some momentum after that one.'
Par-4 6th, 415 yards:
Once again, Stephanie is the last to hit among her threesome after striping her tee shot 265 yards. With only 150 yards to the green, she pulls her approach long and left. Her ball nestles in the rough and cant be seen from outside the ropes. Faced with a buried Callaway and a straight downhill chip, she stabs at the ball but it doesnt get within 10 feet of the hole. She misses from there and makes bogey to drop once again to 3 over.
I had a little bit of fear with that chip on 6. The fear got me.
Par-4 7th, 303 yards:
With her fire stoked, Stephanie crushes her driver on the short par-4 and then hits a tremendous approach shot from the right side of the fairway. The ball barely clears the large protective bunker, takes one hop and settles 5 feet from the pin. After getting a good read off of Jang's putt, which is on the same line but from twice the distance, she converts the birdie to return to 2 over. Her smile returns as well. Knowing how close she is to getting back to even par, Stephanie is starting to show more emotion. She thumped the butt of her wedge on the ground after her poor chip at No. 6. As her playing competitors were putting out, she stood off to the side of the green by herself, shaking her head. The birdie at No. 7 gives her an admitted adrenaline rush. She is 2 over with two to play.
I started getting that competitive feeling back. Its something I hadnt experienced in eight years and it felt great.'
Par-5 9th, 492 yards:
Following a great par save at the eighth, Stephanie again finds the fairway on her home hole. It was technically her seventh fairway hit in 14 attempts; though, when she missed, she didnt miss by much. She hit 11 of 18 greens in regulation ' but not on her final hole. Standing in the fairway, her approach shot finishes on a deadpan lie left of the green, one she later referred to as cement. She manages to chip to within 7 feet, but a poor stroke on her par putt leaves her a foot short of the hole, and walking off the green in a tie for 111th place at 3-over-par 75.
Im not too happy right now, but Im not out of it. At least I have a chance ' and by out of it, I mean a chance to make the cut.'
Despite the obvious disappointment of bogeying the last, Stephanie still signs an autograph for an elderly gentleman while walking off the ninth green. She is applauded by a solid contingent of fans, many of whom followed her the whole way. Trying to mask her frustration, she buries her head in her hands, but only briefly. She emerges with a smile. After signing her scorecard and signing autographs for a handful of patrons, Stephanie takes time to talk to a Golf Channel production crew and then to one reporter (me).
It was an entirely different course from when I practiced on it, she says. I didnt shoot the number I wanted, but I still have tomorrow. I really want to play three more days.
And with that she smiles one more time and adds, I feel like Im a 9-year-old again. It was so much fun out there.
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs