On the tee: A wish gets fulfilled

Cancer patient to see 13-year-old daughter play in LPGA event


Orlando, Fla. -- She wants to be a musician more than a professional golfer. The reporters keep acting as if golf is all she ever thinks about. "They're always like, `Is golf your life?' " Dakoda Dowd said as she stretched out on a couch and picked at her guitar.

"I'm like, `No, it's not.' "

Today, Dowd, who just turned 13 a few weeks ago, is playing in the Ginn Open, an LPGA tournament at Reunion Resort. She's playing in it because of her mother, Kelly Jo Dowd, a 41-year-old former Hooters calendar girl whose breast cancer spread to her liver and bones. Last May, doctors said Kelly Jo had months to live.

It's always been her mother's dream to see Dakoda - one of the nation's top players in her age group - play professionally. The people at Reunion read a story about Kelly Jo's wish and gave Dakoda an exemption.

So, Dakoda is going to do it, even if she doesn't want to. Sometimes she does. But it's difficult. Since she accepted the exemption about six months ago, she's done dozens and dozens of interviews. Maybe 50, she thinks. She's been on the front page of The New York Times, been on CNN, People magazine. On Sunday, ESPN's SportsCenter said Dowd's golf has "brought unexpected hope to a family in crisis" and that playing in the tournament is how she is "honoring her terminally ill mom."

It's a lot of pressure.

"I've had a couple of meltdowns," Dowd said.

The TV anchors freak her out, the ones with the microphones in her face. "They just stare at you," Dowd said. All the reporters ask the same questions, over and over.

"Are you nervous or excited to play in the tournament?"

"How is this tournament going to change your life?"

"Was it cool meeting Annika Sorenstam?"

Some asked her what life will be like after her mother dies. Dowd didn't answer them. She was angry they asked. She told her mother about it and then she started crying and her mother started crying and they held each other for a long time. Her mother didn't know what to say. She's become a label - dying mother, terminally ill mother - and people forget how much it hurts her to see those words, how much it hurts Dakoda to think of losing her mother, her best friend.

"I can tell her anything," Dowd said.

Kelly Jo was first found to have breast cancer in 2002. She had felt a lump in her right breast and her doctor said it was probably nothing, but to get a mammogram. Kelly Jo was busy and put off the test for eight months. The lump was malignant.

She went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She was stripped of all the things that made her feel like a woman, her long, tumbling blond hair. Eyelashes. Nails. Her skin was dry. As a model, she was so focused on her looks. She remembers one day standing naked in front of the mirror. She had scars where her breasts used to be. The only hair left on her body was on her arms. She was frail and sick. She felt ugly.

But she fought through it and got better. Went back to work. Learned her identity was not in her looks - but she was happy to have her hair back. She felt good but was achy. She thought it was from working out. A bone scan last May showed the cancer had returned, more aggressive, throughout her body.

She wasn't going to go through chemotherapy again. She gave everything she had the first time, she saved nothing for another fight. But Dakoda sat next to her and wrote on her legs with a Sharpie - Don't give up, Don't give up. Kelly Jo went through chemotherapy again, for Dakoda.

So Dakoda is doing this, for her mother.

"This is a great opportunity for Mom and me to realize her dream of seeing me play," Dakoda said. "In case she's not here to see it, later on."

Dakoda said playing in an LPGA tournament really has been something she and her mother have talked about since she was little, that it's not something hyped by the media. She's played golf since she was 4 years old. She's not sure how many trophies she has. Two hundred, maybe. Her father, Mike, acts like her manager. Her mother has always been on the sidelines, cheering no matter how poorly Dakoda played.

"I'm doing this because she wants me to," she said.

Dakoda is home-schooled by her father. She was in the fourth grade when her mother's cancer was first diagnosed. Kelly Jo and Mike pulled her out of school so she could spend more time with her mother and focus on golf. The Dowds live in a studio apartment at Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort near Tampa. The plan was to live in the condo for a few months and then find something larger. But then Kelly Jo got sick and couldn't work anymore, their income cut in half. The condo is one large room, split in the middle by a divider. Dakoda sleeps on a folding bed she puts away every morning.

Kelly Jo feels good. She's been going through chemotherapy - a different kind than before. Her hair hasn't fallen out this time, though a toenail did the other day. She doesn't feel like she's dying anytime soon.

In the beginning, when Dakoda first got the exemption, Kelly Jo and Mike thought it was great. She would be famous.

"The whole world is going to know about our little girl," Mike said he thought. "Shame on me for thinking that."

"You wise up sometimes," Kelly Jo said.

They said it's too much, too draining being in the spotlight. Now they are focused on using the attention to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. They are thankful for the attention, the opportunities, the donations. But they are ready to get back to their normal lives.

On Saturday, Dakoda shrugged when asked if she wanted to play in the tournament. But she said she's nervous and excited.

She's appreciative of the opportunity, but ...

"I'd rather be a normal teenager," she said, and then she left her guitar on the couch and went to go meet her friends at the pool.

Erin Sullivan writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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