Chuasiriporn: books to bucks

Golf: Timonium's Jenny Chuasiriporn says goodbye to Duke, hello to the pro tour, and the personality-short LPGA is happy she's on her way.

May 31, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

As with any recent college graduate, Jenny Chuasiriporn knows that her life will be different now that she has left Duke. The four years she spent there have quickly become a happy memory, and what awaits her is both exciting and nerve-racking.

Chuasiriporn's job search will not last long. In fact, it will end this week, when the 21-year-old golfer from Timonium begins her professional career at the U.S. Women's Open in West Point, Miss.

While some of her friends are taking time off before joining the real world, Chuasiriporn finds herself beginning to make adult decisions as the ink on her diploma is drying.

A week ago today, she signed with a sports management company, Pros Inc. of Richmond, Va.

Sitting in the kitchen of her family's home Wednesday morning, Chuasiriporn was negotiating her first cell phone. She has already begun making plans to move to Atlanta late this summer to be closer to warmer weather that will allow her to practice nearly year-round.

"I feel the next year or two years will be a developmental stage for me," said Chuasiriporn, a three-time, first-team All-American at Duke. "I don't feel like a Tiger Woods. I don't feel like I'm going to dominate right away. I feel I'm going to do well over a long period of time."

Still, Chuasiriporn's debut will be one of the most anticipated in recent golf history. Certainly not as celebrated as when Woods turned pro three years ago, Chuasiriporn's arrival on the LPGA Tour will be marked by much of the same buzz that accompanied Nancy Lopez more than two decades ago.

Recognizing this, the USGA has put Chuasiriporn and Lopez together for the first two rounds of the Open at the Old Waverly Golf Club.

"Sure, there's going to be pressure," Lopez said during a recent tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla. "I hope she's really ready. Finishing second in the Open as an amateur can put a lot of expections on a young player."

It was Chuasiriporn's near victory at last year's Women's Open in Kohler, Wis., that raised those expectations. In retrospect, Chuasiriporn said, she feels fortunate she didn't beat Se Ri Pak in their history-making, 20-hole, sudden-death playoff.

Getting that far made Chuasiriporn even more confident than she was before, yet losing in the end allowed her to maintain some sense of normalcy as she headed back to Durham, N.C., for her senior year. Had she won, there would have been even more pressure to turn pro early.

"I'm a big believer in things happening for a reason," she said. "When I look back, it was the right amount [of attention] for my golf and for my life. I wouldn't have given up my last year for anything. I don't think I would have been happy the rest of my life."

It was also the way she handled that defeat, as well as her subsequent loss to Grace Park in the final of the U.S. Women's Amateur in Ann Arbor, Mich., that made Chuasiriporn so appealing. It was with humility and a sense of humor, joking that she considered pushing Pak into a pond after she made the putt to end their match.

That appeal has turned Chuasiriporn into a star before cashing her first paycheck.

It led to Duke visits by five management companies in recent months to pitch their services to Chuasiriporn and a committee of advisers made up of her coach, Dan Brooks, and professors from the law and business schools.

It led to Chuasiriporn receiving the maximum number of sponsor exemptions -- four -- to play in LPGA events.

It will undoubtedly lead to some grumbling by LPGA veterans who believe that Chuasiriporn will get too much attention -- and perhaps too much endorsement money -- before she wins.

"There's always going to be jealousy," said Lopez, 42, and the winner of 48 LPGA events in a Hall of Fame career. "But it won't be from the top players. Those players weren't jealous of me. The players who made the snide remarks were those who hadn't won any tournaments."

Chuasiriporn could have a similar impact. When Lopez burst on the scene by winning nine tournaments as a rookie in 1978 -- including an ongoing record five straight -- the LPGA was trying to find its niche in the American sports market.

It previously gained attention by promoting the looks of players such as Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson. Lopez put the focus on performance and personality. The LPGA these days finds itself lacking in many areas -- personality, in particular.

"We need a Nancy Lopez," veteran Danielle Ammaccapane said recently. "We have a lot of great players, but the emotion isn't there. I think some of the girls are closing themselves down. People want to know the personal side of athletes. You can't go up to them and tell them how to act. We have to wait for someone to come around."

Hall of Famer Carol Mann, who, like Chuasiriporn, grew up in Baltimore, is more blunt.

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