Rookie Bowie suddenly emerges from LPGA rough

July 16, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

All the coveted credentials were there. Heather Bowie brought them with her. A natural gift. Four times she was a college All-American and, in 1997, the reigning queen of college golf - the NCAA women's champion.

Yet three times she attempted to qualify for the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, and all she had to show for the efforts were frustration and disappointment. "Being voted most likely to succeed" was an empty designation, a hollow slogan that couldn't be correlated with the high numbers she was putting on the scoreboard for a would-be professional .

But how things have changed. Heather Bowie, 25, is the granddaughter of Madison "Buzz" Nutter, the former Baltimore Colts center, who showed the way to two NFL championships, including in the showdown that is euphemistically known as the "Greatest Game Ever Played."

Bowie, after failing to make any kind of connection, has made a delayed emergence as one of the outstanding rookie golfers on tour.

From being a nonexempt player, she has tied for fifth and sixth in her last two tournaments and her bank account, which was zero in January, has climbed to $119,592.

In the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., she took home $42,932, which caused her grandfather to say: "I believe I played eight years in the NFL and totaling up all my salaries, it never came to that. I guess we all realize how times have changed."

Nutter, these days, is glowing over what Heather is doing. "She lived her early years in LaPlata before moving to Dover, Del., and becoming interested in golf." Some of the first positive scouting reports came from two friends of Buzz, former teammate John Unitas and announcer Chuck Thompson.

A dozen years ago, they were in a celebrity tournament in Delaware and came home talking about the young girl who was in their group and the impressive ability she had. Yes, Heather Bowie, later to be a four-time college All-American, first at Arizona State and then at Texas.

Only twice has she failed to make a cut this season, missing in Hawaii by a stroke and in Austin, Texas, where she admits to "trying too hard because I was back where I played my last college year and, in front of close friends, wanted to do so well."

Sometimes, mental pressure can get in the way of physical performance, which every athlete knows about.

Yes, the game looks easy from the gallery. But Bowie is quick to remark: "Yet

it's even a lot more fun than it looks. Take my word, this is the best job in the world." Bowie says one of her great experiences is having the opportunity to meet golf enthusiasts who invite the players to stay in their homes when a tournament is scheduled in their area.

"Some of the top players stay in hotels all the time," she said. "I do, on occasion, but being in a residential setting gives you a feeling of being a part of home life, which you miss when you're on the road week after week."

At the start of her career, she received financial assistance from people who believed in her ability and made an investment. Commercial sponsorships come with the equipment she plays, including Ping clubs, Titleist balls and Aerogreen golf shoes.

Bowie ranks fifth in hitting greens in regulation, is 13th in scoring average with 71.53 and holds a respectable 26th position in average driving distance, 249.08 yards.

She is regarded as a consistent striker of the ball - everywhere but on the greens, where she is a struggling 106th among all players in putting. "The biggest thing in making the transition to a professional is finding your comfort level. My confidence has improved. Absolutely."

Bowie has a coach, Michael Hunt, who has helped her since she was a child in Delaware. Hunt, formerly of Waynesboro (Pa.) Country Club, is now a teacher at Florida's Doral and widely respected.

On the weekly tournament trail, she says it's not necessary to talk to Hunt after every round. She only calls him if there's a major problem, and he agrees this is a reasonable approach to a student-teacher relationship.

Monday is the one day of the week on which Bowie refrains from visiting the golf course. It's intended to be a change of pace, to ease the grind. She finds going to baseball games a relaxing way to spend free time.

She says she won't be handling a golf club in October, November and December this year, and will vacation in Rome with her parents, who lived in Edmond, Okla., before moving to Fort Worth, Texas.

If Bowie continues at her present pace, staying among the top 90 players, she won't have to put herself through the pressurized qualifying process next year, but there's still a long season ahead.

There are 28 rookies competing and 11 from foreign countries because of a lack of substantial tours in their homelands. The No. 1 rookie has been Grace Park of South Korea, who has amassed $287,441 in prize money so far.

But Bowie has no complaints. "I'm a little surprised I've done this well. It's a little bit unbelievable when you consider where I was six months ago and where I am now."

The innate ability is there, along with desire and a mature outlook. Heather Bowie promises to be more than just another name on the crowded pairing sheet.

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