Genes said `Serve,' but fate said `Fore'

Golf: Marika Lendl, 14, has ended up on the course rather than the court, but famed father Ivan doesn't mind a bit.

Golf

August 05, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Ivan Lendl spent so much time on the golf course toward the end of his Hall of Fame tennis career that some wondered which sport he enjoyed more. Lendl's love for his new game was passed on - eventually - to the oldest of his five daughters.

At 14, Marika Lendl has the same lanky build as her famed father and an even better handicap. Eventually, she hopes to make as big a name for herself on the course as her father, an eight-time Grand Slam event titlist who won 94 tournaments worldwide, did on the courts.

It is a daunting goal, but one that the younger Lendl is beginning to dream about as one of the more promising amateur players in the country.

Marika Lendl is in Baltimore this week, as part of the American Junior Golf Association's Canon Cup team competition at Caves Valley in Owings Mills.

After playing tennis from the time she was a toddler until age 11, Marika said she quit shortly after reaching her highest ranking of No. 4 in New England - as a 10-year-old in the 14-and-under division. It was a decision she reached painfully.

"I was just getting hurt all the time," she said as she played a practice round Monday afternoon. "My shoulder, my hamstring, you name it. By the time I was 11, I was on my way out."

A freak non-tennis injury eventually ended any thought she had of following in her father's imposing footsteps. Fooling around with one of her younger siblings, Marika broke the growth plate in her right arm, near the elbow.

After her arm healed, her father insisted his oldest daughter find herself another sport.

With the help of a bribe - Ivan said he would buy Marika the dog she wanted, a German shepherd, if she played at least six months - the golf bug hit daughter just as it had father all those years before.

But it was not a natural transition.

"I had more talent at tennis," said Marika.

She wasn't bad at golf. Marika said she shot 101 the first time she played 18 holes and then quickly went under that. The learning curve wasn't as dramatic as, say, for Michelle Wie, but the improvement was steady.

"I don't remember when I broke 100 or 90 or 80," she said, "but I remember when I broke 70 for the first time."

And the second time. That was in May, when she used a 65 in the second round of a prestigious junior tournament in Roanoke, Va., to gain a share of the lead going into the final round.

She went on to beat two more-experienced players, Emma Cabrera-Bello of Spain and In Bee Park of South Korea in a playoff in the Scott Robertson Memorial.

Marika, 11 days past her 14th birthday, became the youngest player to win the tournament's 15-to-18 girls championship, supplanting LPGA Tour rookie Aree Song in the record books.

"This is my first, and it's definitely not my last," she said that day.

The victory earned her an invitation to the Canon Cup, an East vs. West event that is billed as the AJGA's Ryder Cup and features some of the world's top junior players, including Brittany Lincicome of Seminole, Fla., who last month led the U.S. Women's Open after the opening round.

"She's pretty consistent," Will Osborne, an 18-year-old from Wichita Falls, Texas, who's headed to the University of Arkansas, said of Marika as they played together on Monday. "She's really young. I wasn't that good when I was her age."

Ivan seems happy Marika has found her own niche.

The elder Lendl, who retired from tennis in 1994, sees a similarity in his daughter's on-course demeanor.

"I think she's very competitive," he said last night. "She doesn't like to lose, either. She takes it seriously and she really goes after it."

Recalling the questions she was constantly asked at junior tennis tournaments, he said, after his daughter's win in Roanoke: "I think people are fairly irritating, to be honest. They were asking her, `Aw, can you beat your dad, can you be as good as your dad?' It's a tough place to be."

And he doesn't want his accomplishments to overshadow his daughter's dream.

"I think every kid should have their dreams and, whatever their dreams are, I'll do my best to help them to achieve them. Whether it's my kids or any other kids, if they say I want to do this or that, I say, `How do you want to go about it and how can I help you?' "

Marika is hoping to take her golf game to another level this fall when she enrolls full time in the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida. Her parents will alternate time between an apartment near the Pendleton School, a private school run by International Management Group, and their 800-acre estate in Goshen, Conn.

Unlike Wie, who is still saying she will attend college before turning pro, Marika isn't clear about her next step.

"I'm not sure I want to go to college, but I definitely want to play the LPGA Tour," she said.

There is clearly one last family goal to accomplish: beating her father, a 2-handicap player, at golf. The younger Lendl, whose 1 handicap means her stroke average is below par, hasn't quite done it yet.

"He says it doesn't count until we play from the same tees," she said.

The Roanoke Times contributed to this article.

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