Granada: Life after winning the first $1M LPGA prize

Julieta Granada after winning the $1 million prize at the 2006 ADT Championship. (Getty)

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A $1 million winner’s check is standard fare in the men’s game.

The PGA Tour began handing them out with the launch of the World Golf Championships in 1999. It didn’t take long before the purses of other events began soaring, too.

Since the start of the 2009 season, 218 PGA Tour events have paid out $1 million to their champions.

It isn’t a big deal anymore.

Since ’09, do you know how many women have taken home $1 million as winners of an LPGA event?

Zero. None. Nada.

That’s why the new Race to the CME Globe is a big deal. The race’s $1 million jackpot is a really big deal.

This week’s Mizuno Classic in Japan marks the second-to-last event for the women to position themselves for a shot at the big prize. The top nine players on the Race to the CME Globe points list after next week’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational will go to the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship with a shot at winning the jackpot. (Click here to see who’s jockeying for position).  

Just three women in the history of golf have taken home $1 million with a victory.

Julieta Granada was the first to do so in 2006, claiming the windfall as winner of the inaugural LPGA Playoffs at the ADT. Ochoa won the big prize in ’07 and Jiyai Shin in ’08, but then the event folded, taking its giant paycheck with it.

A sense of wonder that went with winning the LPGA’s season finale was lost with the ADT’s demise, but it’s back with the Race to the CME Globe.

Eight years have passed since Granada won the first $1 million jackpot in women’s golf, but the memory’s fresh. A 20-year-old rookie, she outplayed world No. 1 Ochoa and Hall of Famer Karrie Webb in the final round at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. At the trophy presentation, Granada was handed a glass cube purported to be filled with a million dollars in cash.

“I still remember that clearly,” Granada told GolfChannel.com. “We were going around, taking pictures of me holding it, with this bodyguard following me around. I’m a rookie, and I’m thinking: ‘This is pretty cool. I must be important. I’ve got a guy protecting me.’ I found out I wasn’t as cool as I thought. As soon as I gave the cube with the $1 million in it back, the guard stopped following me around. He went with the money.”

Granada never set up a direct deposit account with the LPGA that rookie season. She got paid the old fashioned way, by check. That made for a comical visit to the Wachovia Bank where she kept her account near her Orlando home. She walked in the bank’s door one morning and handed the massive check to a clerk, whose eyes widened.

“It was pretty funny,” Granada said. “It actually wasn’t for $1 million, because of the withholdings, but it was a large deposit.”

Granada wasn’t quite a rags-to-riches story, but the money was awfully nice. Growing up in Paraguay, she wasn’t poor, but her family wasn’t rich, either. The daughter of a greenskeeper, Granada earned a scholarship to the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. She moved there at 14 with her mother, Rosa, to chase her golf dreams, but it didn’t always seem like the dreamiest journey in their little apartment so far away from home.

“To save money so we could travel to junior tournaments in the summer, we didn’t have a car while I was at school,” Granada said. “My mother and I rode bikes.”

They rode bikes everywhere. The five-mile bike hike to the nearest Walmart wasn’t a lot of fun on Florida’s hottest days.

“I retired that bike, and I don’t ever want to ride one again,” Granada said.

When Granada graduated from the Leadbetter Academy and turned pro in 2005, her means of transportation didn’t dramatically improve. Playing what was then called the Futures Tour (now Symetra), she traveled the country with her mother in a 12-year-old Nissan Quest minivan. Rosa caddied for Julieta and still does today. On the way to Julieta’s very first event as a pro, their van broke down 30 miles from the tournament site, outside Ann Arbor, Mich. They had to scramble to find a ride to the tournament.

Julieta played that first event under added pressure. She played knowing the mechanic wanted $700 to fix the van. She played knowing they didn’t have the money to pay.

With a second-place finish, though, Granada won $6,500.

“I thought, ‘Sweet, now we can go pick up our car and go to the next event,’” she said.

Granada enjoyed a strong LPGA rookie season, even before winning the $1 million jackpot. The big payday changed her life in ways she didn’t expect. She bought a luxury SUV, a Range Rover Sport.

“I really wanted a nice car,” Granada said. “It’s the only thing I really wanted with the winnings.”

With the win, Granada was fueled with the confidence that bigger triumphs were in sight, but there were bumps in the road that her new luxury SUV couldn’t avoid. She was fourth on the LPGA money list her rookie year, but she tumbled to 100th two years later, then 106th, taking her back to LPGA Q-School.

“The money was a double-edged sword,” Granada said. “I was out on tour fighting to make money. I was hungry, and it was my fuel. Then, winning all that money, you get complacent. You get comfortable, and you lose a little of that hunger, a little bit of that determination.”

While Granada is still looking for her second victory, she’s buoyed by a resurgence in her game. She’s enjoying her best year since her rookie campaign, with seven top-10 finishes this season, two of them in majors, and $607,014 in money winnings. She is 25th on the LPGA money list and 23rd on the Race to the CME Globe points list.

Granada won’t get a shot at the $1 million jackpot this year. She can’t mathematically crack the top nine in points, but she will head to the CME Group Tour Championship feeling good about the direction her game is headed and her shot at future jackpots.

That sense of wonder returns to the LPGA’s season finale with the biggest jackpot in the women’s game awaiting once more.