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Playing Through the Pain

2007 Kraft Nabisco ChampionshipRANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Reilley Rankin shows you the bloated blister on her left hand.

It hurts just looking at it.

She shot 3-under-par 69 with that hand Thursday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, her best score in eight months in an LPGA event, her best in almost three years in a major. She’s tied for seventh.

Rankin pokes the blister with a finger on the driving range and winces.

Reilley Rankin
Reilley Rankin had five birdies and two bogeys Thursday at Mission Hills. (Getty Images)
“If you focus on it, it hurts more,” Rankin says.

Rankin knows all about pain, overcoming it.

A dozen years ago, during a vacation while at the University of Georgia, she broke her back in two places jumping off a cliff into a lake in Alabama. She also broke her sternum. After a couple months in a body brace, two years in rehabilitation, she came back to lead the Bulldogs to the NCAA women’s golf championship.

Rankin, 31, was hurt again last year, but the pain was different, not so visible. You can’t see bruises to the soul. You can’t see how worry and guilt wound the heart.

You can see bad swings, though, and Rankin was making a lot of them, missing the cut in 10 of 13 tournaments, her worst year on tour.

There was too much focus on pain on and off the golf course.

At the end of 2009, Rankin’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with cancer in her neck.

Reilley’s father, Bill, who works in the restaurant business in South Carolina, didn’t have health insurance.

“Couldn’t afford it,” Reilley says.

Trying to find Mary Rankin help was nightmarish.

“You talk to hospitals, and you realize how much it’s about the money,” Reilley says.

Reilley’s father left his job to nurse Mary. So did Rankin’s sister, Caroline. Reilley led the charge trying to find care and the right treatment. It was maddening work, talking to health-care companies, doctors’ offices. But Reilley never felt like she was doing enough as she played through her mother’s illness. There was guilt feeling that way.

“It’s hard when a loved one’s hurting,” Rankin said. “My mother and father, they gave up so much for me to be able to play golf. We didn’t have much, and they gave up everything for my dream. I knew playing made my mom happy, but I really struggled with that.”

Reilley, with the aid of dear friends, Courtney Trimble, the head coach at the University of Central Florida, and Mary Bryan, the assistant coach there, found Mary Rankin help at Florida Hospital in Orlando. The hospital’s foundation stepped in to cover costs. Reilley’s mother, father and sister moved in with Reilley in Orlando and over several months, the treatment drove Mary’s cancer out.

“The cancer’s gone, but there are other health issues,” Rankin said.

Mary Rankin was well enough last December to watch Reilley play in the LPGA Tour Championship in Orlando. Reilley missed the cut. Her mother hugged her afterward with tears in her eyes.

“Does this mean you have to go to Q-School?” Mary asked Reilley. “It’s not fair, but I believe in you. I know you can do it.”

Believing again. Believing it as much as her mother believes. That’s become Rankin’s quest in rebuilding her game.

Rankin says her swing coach, Gary Gilchrist, is doing as much for her confidence as he is her swing.

“He knows more than my game,” Rankin said. “He knows my personality, what makes me tick.”

Rankin says Gilchrist is making her believe she doesn’t have to be technically perfect to play good golf. That’s what made her 69 Thursday feel so good. She said she put up a score feeling like she wasn’t hitting the ball that well.

“Everybody sees all the talent and ability in Reilley, but she doubts herself,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist is turning the focus away from Rankin’s blisters and pain and onto what’s right in her game.

“Gary’s been drilling into me that what I have is good enough,” Rankin said. “He’s building back my confidence.”

Mostly, Rankin says Gilchrist’s helping her play like she did as a junior and in college.

“Play like a kid,” Rankin said. “That’s what I’m trying to get back to doing.”

Rankin’s trying not to focus on the pain anymore, even in her bad shots.

“When you’re a kid and you hit a bad shot, you’re thinking, 'Great, now I get to go play a fun shot from there,’” Rankin said. “It’s about how you handle things, how you respond.”

Rankin knows her 69 was just one round at the Kraft, but it was a big step for her confidence. She reminded herself you don’t have to focus on life’s blisters.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell