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LPGA's new maternity policy to help players balance motherhood and work

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Mothers returning to the LPGA amid the tour’s new baby boom need more help.

Karine Icher lobbied hard last year for a revamping of the tour’s maternity policy, and so did Sydnee Michaels. The more demanding global nature of the tour, with international travel greater than any other era, complicated their attempts to balance motherhood and a playing career.

The LPGA did more than listen.

The tour is delivering a revamped new policy expected to go into effect over the next week. It’s designed to be a more flexible policy, with new options that will help players beyond the year in which their child is born, and into the year after, allowing them more time to return with their babies.

“Without a doubt, our maternity policy is intended to encourage athletes to have families,” LPGA tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio told GolfChannel.com. “The goal has always been, through our policy, to help players achieve their dreams as both a competitor and a mom.”

Under the current policy, a player has the option of taking maternity leave in the year in which they are pregnant and give birth, or to take it the year after the birth. By choosing to take maternity leave, a player restricts herself to a maximum of 10 starts in that year. The maternity leave policy, however, guarantees the player won’t lose her status when she returns the following year.

Lewis' return kicks off big year for moms on the LPGA

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The mother of all comeback years begins this week at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. As in talented moms coming back to the LPGA ... Stacy Lewis, Suzann Pettersen, Gerina Piller and Karine Icher will be rejoining the tour after taking long spells off to give birth during the LPGA’s baby boom a year ago. That was a lot of talent taking maternity leave. How will they fare in their returns? How will the new tug on their hearts affect their games? It’s different for mothers returning to the LPGA, more complicated than it is for fathers returning to the PGA Tour. There were physical challenges in the time away during pregnancy. Now, there are emotional challenges as they bond with their newborns. “Everything is different now,” said Lewis, the former world No. 1. Lewis feels that on and off the course. “Everything has more meaning now,” she said. So excited to welcome Chesnee Lynn Chadwell to the world on October 25th! We are both home and doing great! pic.twitter.com/A7rDQOib7e— Stacy Lewis (@Stacy_Lewis) October 28, 2018 Lewis, 33, gets things going this week with her first start since welcoming her first child, a daughter, back in October. Pettersen, Piller and Icher will make their returns in the weeks coming. Lewis left the tour in July and three months later gave birth to Chesnee Lynn. She is making her return with Chesnee alongside. Her husband, Gerrod Chadwell, is here to help Lewis figure out the new routines of this more complicated life on the road. “I’m planning on taking Chesnee with me wherever I go,” Lewis said. How challenging will this transition be? All four of these returning mothers are Solheim Cup stalwarts, and it’s a Solheim Cup year. They’ve fallen back in qualifying and need to catch up on points, which makes the transition to a larger family life more challenging. “It’s a lot of hard work, but nothing I’ve ever done will compare to this,” Piller said. “It’s awesome.” Piller gave birth to her son, AJ, back in April. She took off the full year and expects to make her return at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore in six weeks. Using the tour’s maternity leave policy, she retains her 2017 tour status this year. AJ won’t make the trip to Asia, but Piller plans to take him on the road when the tour returns to the United States. Piller left AJ for the first time to attend an outing in Wisconsin when he was 2 months old. Her husband, PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, will be juggling his schedule, too. “It was hard,” Gerina said of leaving AJ for the first time for that outing. “And I don’t think it’s going to get any easier.” Icher, 39, is the only one who knows what to expect. She gave birth to her second daughter, Maya, in November. Lewis, Pettersen and Piller are first-time moms. “My days are a little bit shorter now,” Icher said. “Having two children is more than double the work, but I’ll be ready for the new season.” Pettersen, 37, gave birth to Herman Alexander in August. When she will return is unclear, but she posted a photo on Twitter of her practicing on Jan. 2. “A new year on different terms,” Pettersen wrote, “being a mum is by far the greatest gift in life.” Finally, the wait is over! Our little prince has arrived 08.08-2018 . A post shared by Suzann Pettersen (@suzannpettersen) on Aug 9, 2018 at 12:46pm PDT Juli Inkster, Nancy Lopez and Catriona Matthew have proven players can thrive at the highest level as mothers. They won majors after becoming moms, but they are more the exception than the rule. Matthew is the only player to win a major as a mother over the last 17 years. Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa left the tour to start families while still atop their games. “I just felt like the worst mother in the world leaving them for the first time,” said Inkster, a mother of two daughters. “Who leaves their child for a week? But you know what? My daughters are 28 and 24 now, and they don’t remember that.” Inkster’s daughters grew up on tour, loving the life. “I told Gerina that AJ is going to cry when she leaves, but five minutes later he’s going to be fine,” Inkster said. “She’s going to have a lot of time with him. “It’s going to be a mental challenge out on tour, more than anything. I’m just trying to get her over the mental side, so she can focus on golf when she is out there.” Lewis isn’t sure what to expect at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. In fact, she’s tempering her playing expectations, intending to make this week more about Chesnee than golf. Lewis put away her clubs two months before the birth, and she went about four months after without hitting a shot. She played 18 holes for the first time last week. She said she was surprised how weak her core became in the time away and needed to rebuild her body in the gym before playing too much. “Expectations aren’t real high this first time out,” Lewis said. “It’s more just to get my legs under me, to see where my game is and then go from there. “Truthfully, it is more about traveling with Chesnee, seeing how everything is going to go, how it goes dropping her off at [the tour’s] daycare every day, getting a feel for that so in March I will really be ready to go.” After this week’s start, Lewis will skip the Asian/Australian swing. She plans to make her second start at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix in March. Chadwell is helping this week, but his duties as the golf coach at the University of Houston will limit his travel with her in the spring. The couple’s parents will take turns helping Stacy, with Gerrod getting more time to travel in the summer. Lewis and Piller are comparing notes. They’re comforted knowing Chesnee and AJ will be together at the LPGA’s Smucker’s Daycare program on tour. “We can definitely learn from each other,” Piller said. “I’d like to start ‘Moms on Tour,’ or something like that, a little forum where we can all help each other out.” For Lewis, there’s a special challenge in all of this, something empowering stepping into the role of a working mom. Back last year, she said she wanted to be an example of what’s possible to her daughter. “More than anything, I want to prove to myself I can do this,” Lewis said. “There are definitely days when you’re sitting there, with your baby crying, and you’re thinking, ‘My gosh, what did we do? Can we really do this? Can we have a job, travel and take her with us.’ I want to prove it to myself, and hopefully inspire working moms. I just have so much respect for moms at work, how they do it every day. It just blows my mind.” Lewis said Chesnee has already changed her life. “She’s the first thing and the last thing I think about every day,” Lewis said. “Everything revolves around her. When I practice revolves around her. When I work out, that revolves around her schedule. “It’s not about me anymore, at all. It just changes your mindset. You get so worried about yourself in this game, and that’s the last thing on the list now.” That’s how the mother of all comebacks will work.

For example, Gerina Piller took maternity leave in 2018, giving birth to her son, AJ, in late April. She will return to the LPGA in Singapore in six weeks with the status she earned in 2017. She will start this year 35th in Category One of the tour’s Priority List.

For Icher, who gave birth last November to her second daughter, Maya, last year was more complicated.

Icher finished 40th on the LPGA’s money list in 2017, but she didn’t take a maternity leave in 2018. By the time she learned she was pregnant at the start of June, she had already played 12 events, two more than the maternity leave policy allows. Icher said she didn’t want to invoke the maternity policy anyway. She wanted to keep playing into the important summer events.

It proved a tough year, with Icher finishing 110th on the money list. She ended up taking a medical exemption late last year, which will allow her seven starts this year to try to improve on her 2018 money-list finish.

“The maternity policy wasn’t great,” Icher said. “I spent all year trying to get it changed.”

Under the new policy about to be implemented, there will no longer be that 10-event limit for players on maternity leave. A player will be able to tee it up in as many events as she chooses while on maternity leave.

If this new policy was in effect last year, Icher could have taken maternity leave after learning of her pregnancy after 12 starts. She could have continued to play as much as she wanted the rest of the year, knowing her status for 2019 would be based on what she earned in 2017 [or 2018, had she improved].

There will be other changes to the policy released in the next week, which will allow players more time to return to the tour after giving birth, without fear of hurting their status.

“Essentially, under the new policy, moms won’t feel like they have to rush to get back on tour,” Michaels said.

Michaels gave birth to her daughter, Isla, late in 2017. She felt rushed to return early in ’18 to begin solidifying status for this year. With her husband traveling a lot in the equipment business on other tours, Michaels was alone with her baby on the road a lot.

“For maybe two-thirds of the events that I played,” she said. “I wasn’t quite ready to return and needed a couple more months, to feel good about my body and my game, to stop breastfeeding.”

Daly-Donofrio said the new policy will do more to help moms who want to delay their return.

“It’s going to be a much better policy,” Icher said. “It won’t help me, but it’s going to help a lot of players having children in the future.”