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McPherson hopes to ‘recapture that old magic’ at Downey Classic

scottteaser-215x160At her lowest points—and there had been many in recent years—Kristy McPherson contemplated tossing her golf clubs into the Atlantic Ocean and teeing up a new career. Four surgeries on her left elbow had altered the fluid, textbook swing that enabled her to make more than $2-million on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. The few tournaments she did play resulted in a flurry of bogeys and missed cuts. Strolling fairways and greens in desperate search of her old golf game truly had become a good walk spoiled.

“Bad golf is no fun—you can only handle so much of it—and I had my fair share of it,’’ McPherson said recently via phone from her home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “You begin to look at other job opportunities. But there was something deep inside me that didn’t want to give up competitive golf just yet. I didn’t want to exit because of an injury. I believed that if I could get my elbow right, I could get my game back and go out on my own terms.”

The fourth time proved to be a charm for McPherson, as famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews fixed her torn ligaments. After several years of often painful physical therapy and a lot of bad golf, she is healthy again and looking forward to rescuing her career from that elbow-high rough. Like several other LPGA veterans, she is using the Symetra Tour—the minor leagues of women’s golf—to relaunch her dreams. You might say the 37-year-old McPherson is going back to the Futures, which is what the Symetra was called when she was a 21-year-old phenom fresh out of the University of South Carolina.

“We often think of the Symetra Tour as a bunch of teenagers and young twentysomethings chasing the dream, and that’s definitely true,’’ she said. “But it’s also a place for people like me: thirtysomethings who have been on the LPGA Tour, and who are rehabbing or trying to hone our skills and recapture that old magic.”

In that respect, it’s like professional baseball. The Rochester Red Wings’ Triple-A roster boasts not only prospects on the rise, but also players who have been with the Minnesota Twins; players battling to get back to the bigs.

“Once you’ve tasted the major leagues, you never want to leave,’’ McPherson said. “But you see guys in baseball who are sent down to the minors because they’re coming back from injuries or trying to work their way out of a prolonged slump. I definitely can relate.”

Because of her robust career earnings, McPherson still receives a handful of exemptions and can play some LPGA tournaments. She intended to use one of those exemptions this week at the Marathon Classic in Sylvania, Ohio. But she’s also been playing Symetra events. She currently ranks 20th on the tour with $19,089 in seven tournaments. And she’s been encouraged by her third- and fourth-place Symetra finishes last month. Golfers who complete the season ranked in the top 10 earn full-time LPGA Tour cards, and that’s McPherson’s goal.

“Regaining full-time status would be huge,’’ she said. “When you are eligible for just several LPGA events like I am now, it really puts additional pressure on you to play well in order to open the door to more events. Professional golf is tough enough without feeling that additional burden of having to do well or else.”

McPherson hopes to keep the momentum going when she competes in the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic at Brook-Lea Country Club in Gates, July 19-22. She has fond memories of Rochester. In 2009—her best year in golf with $816,182 in earnings—she fired a 66 on the final day to finish in a second-place tie at the Wegmans LPGA at Locust Hill Country Club.

Like many of her peers, McPherson was saddened to see the LPGA leave Rochester after nearly four decades, but she’s happy that her friend Mike Vadala was able to land a Symetra tournament for the Flower City. She’s also thrilled it’s named after Downey. The two competed against one another since they were 15 years old, and became best friends. They even took a recruiting trip together to Auburn University, where Downey wound up becoming a star.

“When I think of Danielle, I always think of that big smile on her face,’’ McPherson said. “She had this infectious personality. She was one of those people you just wanted to be around. She loved life and loved people. Just a sweetheart. Would do anything in the world for others.”

Like Downey, McPherson is an eternal optimist. She’s also a person who keeps things in perspective. What she has endured in recent years is nothing compared to what she dealt with as an 11-year-old when she spent nearly a year in bed after being diagnosed with Still’s disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that briefly made it too painful for her to walk.

“To a sixth-grader, that seemed like the end of the world,’’ she said. “But, in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me; a blessing in disguise. My arthritis prevented me from pursuing the team sports that were my first love and pointed me toward golf. And golf has given me a blessed life. It has given me so many friendships and enabled me to represent my country (in the 2009 Solheim Cup) and travel to places I never would have.”

Next week, it will bring McPherson back to Rochester. Winning a tournament named in memory of her friend would be extra special. It would be a comeback victory for the ages and the aged. Another dream-come-true story on a tour that offers hope for seasoned golfers, too.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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