BETHESDA -- You won't find her name listed among the favorites, nor even likely contenders, for the Mazda LPGA Championship which began today at Bethesda Country Club, but Shelley Hamlin is worth watching.
She is truly a profile in courage.
In her usual optimistic fashion, however, Hamlin says simply, "I'm one of those people who believes things always work out the way they're supposed to."
A 20-year professional career that had produced lots of enthusiasm and confidence, but only one tour victory (1978) by last summer, was completely overshadowed by winning the two biggest battles of her life, followed by a most rewarding victory.
Hamlin, 42, was diagnosed as having breast cancer last July and underwent a modified radical mastectomy later that month. Two weeks later, she was back hitting balls, and Labor Day weekend, at the Rail Classic, she shot 79-69 and missed the cut by two shots.
By the end of the season, though, she had earned but $16,170, not enough to keep her player's card.
"Terrifying," she calls the experience of the 72-hole qualifying school at Daytona Beach, Fla., last October. "I was at the point in my career where I had to bite the bullet. I just made the decision to go through with it. I wanted it too much not to try."
A third-round 69 followed 74-77 and brightened her spirits. The last day, she birdied the 17th hole and got up and down at the 18th for 75-295, one shot in front of 11 players who had to play off for two available spots.
"Right then, I took a deep breath, and said to myself, 'OK, you got the cancer under control, you got the qualifying school out of the way. Now focus on golf.' "
For several years Hamlin had been working with Jan Ferraris, a former LPGA player who is now a teaching pro in Phoenix, Ariz. Now they stepped up their efforts.
Hamlin tied for seventh in the opening tournament this season (she had had only one higher finish in the previous nine years), and a week later, fought off the charge of Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner and two members of the talented new breed of players, Brandie Burton and Dana Lofland, to win the Phar-Mor at Inverray by a stroke.
"This victory is for those women who have been through what I have been through, to let them know they can still do whatever they want to do," Hamlin said at the time.
She shot a closing-round 66, and will not soon forget the scene walking up the 18th fairway. Pat Bradley, in the hunt for most of the round, was walking ahead when the crowd started to applaud. Bradley looked back and began clapping, too.
"And she was clapping . . . for me. That really touched me; that she thought enough to do that," Hamlin said. Afterward Bradley would say, "I said a prayer going down the 17th fairway. I asked, 'Dear God, please give Shelley the strength to pull this thing off.' "
Reminded of this at Bethesda yesterday, Bradley confirmed her feelings. "I was extremely proud of her strength and courage. She had had the battles with cancer and the qualifying school, and then to win. I was thrilled. It was an incredible moment in sports. I would like to have won, but I was pulling for her."
Since that dramatic moment in early February, Hamlin has played in seven events, making the cut in two of them. "I haven't been putting well," she explained.
Overall, though, "I know my attitude toward the game is a lot lighter now. That's something all professionals have to watch out for. We have a tendency to look at golf for more than what it is. It's a delightful game."
Mazda LPGA Championship
Site: Bethesda Country Club, today through Sunday
TV: Saturday and Sunday, 1-3 p.m., Channel 4
Field: 144 players, including defending champion Meg Mallon, three-time champion Nancy Lopez, two-time winner Beth Daniel, all-time LPGA money leader Pat Bradley and Tina Barrett of Baltimore.
Parking: Across from Walter Johnson High, at the corner of Rock Spring and Rockledge drives. Shuttle service available to golf course. Parking is $5, with proceeds going to Children's Hospital.
Tickets: Season clubhouse, $100; season grounds, $75; book of 10, good-any-day grounds vouchers, $125; daily clubhouse, $25 today and tomorrow, $30 Saturday and Sunday; grounds only, $15 today and tomorrow, $20 Saturday and Sunday. Call (800) 395-4465.