A Change Of Course

Jenny Chuasiriporn seemed destined for golf stardom when she nearly won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, but she lost her passion for the game and might never play full time again.

Golf

March 13, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - She was supposed to be the can't-miss kid of women's golf, the Nancy Lopez for Generation X.

She had the pedigree, having been a three-time All-American for one of the nation's top college programs at Duke. She had the personality, having charmed the country as a 20-year-old amateur who came within a putt of winning the 1998 U.S. Women's Open.

What Jenny Chuasiriporn didn't have was the passion.

"I didn't want to sacrifice everything to play golf," said Chuasiriporn (pronounced SHUH-sear-a-porn). "I wanted to have a balance in my life."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's Sports section on golfer Jenny Chuasiriporn incorrectly identified the high school she attended. Chuasiriporn attended Notre Dame Prep.
The Sun regrets the error.

That contributed significantly to Chuasiriporn failing to make the LPGA Tour after graduating in 1999, and later to her continued struggle on the Futures Tour. In nearly three seasons playing professionally in the United States and in Europe, Chuasiriporn earned less than $10,000.

Last summer, she accepted a job as the assistant men's coach at the University of Virginia.

"I think I got to a point professionally where I wasn't playing for myself," she said recently, reflecting during an interview on campus. "I felt an obligation to my parents because they had invested so much in my career. Honestly, I don't think I'll play full time again. I wasn't a very happy person doing it."

Chuasiriporn, who grew up in Timonium and graduated from McDonogh, had once worked the summer golf camp of Virginia coach Mike Moraghan through her friendship with a former Cavaliers star. They reconnected after the player, Lewis Chitengwa, 26, died suddenly of meningitis last summer.

Moraghan called Chuasiriporn about a foundation being set up through the university to help African golfers like Chitengwa, who was from Zimbabwe. He called back the next day to offer her the job as his assistant.

"At that point I knew I wanted to walk away from it [playing professionally] for an indefinite amount of time," said Chuasiriporn, who had begun helping her parents at their restaurant on York Road. "I kind of told Mike I was in limbo, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave home," she said. "I had this gut feeling that I needed to do it. Just to be around golf, I felt that I had something to contribute and give back to the game."

The game had given Chuasiriporn, as well as brothers Joey and Jimmy, quite a bit over the years.

What had started out as an afternoon and weekend activity at Hunt Valley Golf Club eventually provided the two oldest siblings with college scholarships. (Joey played at Penn State and is currently on the Golden Bear Tour in Florida. Jimmy is a freshman at Dulaney High School.)

But the years of competition on the junior level and in college - she would become the world's No. 1-ranked amateur - eventually took their toll on Jenny Chuasiriporn. What proved to be her greatest achievement in golf ultimately became her biggest burden.

Though she would lose the 1998 U.S. Women's Open to Se Ri Pak of South Korea in a 20-hole playoff, Chuasiriporn was celebrated in defeat.

"Every time she went out to play, she felt she had to win," said Ted Sheftic, a Baltimore-area teaching pro who had worked with Chuasiriporn since she was 12. "After the Open, she was no longer just Jenny. She was the girl who almost won the Open."

Sheftic could see a change in the swing that respected golf analyst Johnny Miller, a former U.S. Open champion, had called one of the best he'd seen in women's golf in the past 20 years. Sheftic said that her tempo quickened dramatically from the top of the backswing to when she hit the ball.

It didn't happen often on the practice range, but usually on the course. Sheftic recalled watching Chuasiriporn hit balls warming up before a friendly nine-hole scramble at a golf school where he was teaching in Florida. Everything seemed perfect until Chuasiriporn stepped onto the first tee.

She sprayed her tee shots like errant field-goal attempts - wide right or wide left.

"If there were out-of-bounds on the left, she'd hit it right, and if there were out-of-bounds on the right, she'd hit it left," Sheftic said. "I don't think she lost her game. She lost her confidence in her ability to perform."

What Duke coach Dan Brooks attributed to a case of senioritis during Chuasiriporn's lackluster spring season continued in the 1999 U.S. Women's Open in West Point, Miss., her first event as a pro.

Leading the tournament at 3-under par after nine holes, Chuasiriporn triple-bogeyed the 10th hole after her drive hit a cart path and ricocheted out of bounds. She double-bogeyed 11 and bogeyed 12. She finished that day with a 5-over 77, missed the cut and has barely been heard from since.

Burning out after college

Chuasiriporn believes that jumping right from Duke into the pro environment was not the best thing for her career.

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