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Marc Mason is a freelance writer based in Tempe, AZ.

Sunday, May 14, 2006  

A couple of years ago, I started making a concerted effort to watch less television. As it was, many, many other things were eating up my time, so shows I used to watch religiously were shunted to the side. But during that period, I also discovered a new show to watch, and there was no way I was going to be able to let it pass me by.

I’m a complete and total golf fiend, so when I discovered the Golf Channel’s THE BIG BREAK, I was instantly addicted. It was an hour-long pipe of televised crack, and it got into my blood. The premise is simple: a small number of scratch golfers compete against one another in skills competitions, eventually whittling the group down to a two-person, 18 holes of match play finale. No voting anyone off. Just play, and pray your game came with you to the course that day.

Season three was where I first found the show, and that version had women competing for exemptions into two LPGA events. Season four followed six men from the U.S. and six men from Europe playing against each other in a sort of Ryder Cup homage. But season five, which just concluded, was the best so far. It was back to the women, and it featured the best golf, and the most compelling personalities, so far.

Of the eleven women who began the show, seven of them are players on the Duramed Futures Tour, the LPGA’s “minor league,” if you will. Every year, the top five players on the Futures Tour get their LPGA cards and make the jump to the next level, and the next ten get exempted to the final round of Q school. Much like the men’s Nationwide Tour, the Futures has produced some outstanding talents on the LPGA, including Christie Kerr, Christina Kim, and Lorena Ochoa. So having seven of their players on the show meant a huge leap in the quality of what we saw on TV.

I got heavily invested in one player in particular, Ashley Prange. My ears perked up when I heard that Prange was from Noblesville, Indiana; years ago, in another life before I was a desert dweller, I was a sportswriter for the NOBLESVILLE LEDGER, the local paper. That was before Prange’s time, but still, it was the first time I’d ever had someone from my old stomping grounds to follow in a realty competition. It was briefly weird for a different reason, as I graduated from a rival high school to Noblesville, but I shrugged it off and cheered the Lady Miller on.

And the weeks passed… and she stayed alive on the show. In fact, she began to dominate the show. Her golf game was good, her attitude was tough, and she made it through challenge after challenge. And after earning her way to the final two on a day of shaky putting, she came out in the final show and won big, securing the exemption to the LPGA event later this summer, a development package including a sports psychologist, a new car, and other cool stuff. Unlike many reality television programs, the best player actually did win, and it was a gas to watch.

Now, being the golf junkie that I am, a few weeks ago, I noticed that the Futures Tour had scheduled an event in Tucson for the first time ever. Seeing that, there was no way I could pass it up. I had to go check it out, for sheer curiosity’s sake. I missed the Nationwide Tour event that was here last fall, but they’re at least on TV here and there. The Futures events never make the screen. It was time to see what life was like on the second level… and it would be fun to see the players who graced my TV screen this spring as well. Sold!

There is no question about it: the Futures Tour is markedly different from every other tour I’ve seen. Not all the players work with a caddy; instead, a golf cart with a scorer rides with the group, carrying the bags. Getting a grip on who in the group you’re watching can be difficult, too; standard bearers were reserved for the final few groups with the leaders, so it was a bear to determine who you were watching.

Galleries were very tiny; at the Safeway International this past spring, the smallest player gallery I saw was around 75 people; the largest gallery I saw at the Futures event was about twenty people to start, and it withered down to as low as two at one point. That gallery belonged to the most well known name in the field: one Ashley Prange of Noblesville, Indiana.

The Randolph Park golf course where the tournament was being played was a bear. It had more peaks and valleys than an issue of PLAYBOY, and some of the slopes were a torn ACL waiting to happen. Saturday, I arrived and decided to spend the first part of the day just wandering and seeing what I could see, so I started on the 9th hole and began working my way backwards. By the time I reached the 5th, I decided to stop for a short bit; I watched six groups play through, then, I followed the last group I watched until they finished the 9th. At that point, I went backwards again, to the fourth, and walked with them through the 9th again. At that point, I decided that I was going to let my writer’s intrigue loose and I was going to follow the TV star’s group through the afternoon. Tee time was 25 minutes away at that point.

I had some water and then spotted Prange and her playing partners Sunny Kim and Julie Tvede on the practice green, so I took up an observer’s position and watched them putt. It was obvious at the time that Prange was having trouble finding a rhythm with the flat stick. At one point, she missed three consecutive three-footers. It didn’t look to be a focus issue, so I was interested to see how it would play out on the course. Some players take that trouble in practice and push it aside and perform brilliantly during their eighteen. For others, it’s an omen.

After a par on the first hole, the second hole demonstrated that Prange’s troubles on the practice green were an omen. A three-putt dropped her to even for the tournament and began a roller coaster of a day that had an absolutely killer ending. There were occasional flashes of genius; on one hole, she put her drive into the left rough, and was a foot away from a small tree. She had a small angle to the hole, but took out a short iron and managed to drop it eight feet from the cup. The man I was walking with at the time just looked at me with his jaw open, and I could respond only in kind. But again, her putter let her down, and she missed the birdie. It was that kind of day.

Keeping track of scoring tournament-wide was difficult, so no one really had any idea where the cut-line was going to be. Julie Tvede wasn’t going to have a problem, though; she had played gorgeous golf all afternoon. But teeing off at the eighteenth, Prange was three over on her round, and had dropped to two-over for the tournament. I thought this might be trouble; the one thing I did know from my earlier walking around was that there were many players simply tearing up the course. But I figured that with a par, Prange would be fine.

She took a mighty rip at her drive on that final hole, and it again headed left. However, this was the one place she really couldn’t afford to go left; there was another course attached to the Randolph Park set-up, and that meant there were out-of-bounds stakes between the eighteenth and the other course’s first. The drive was about a yard to the left of the stakes, and a ruling from an official verified that the stakes were for both holes. Disgusted with herself, she picked up the ball and threw it to me, the one person who had made it all eighteen with her gallery, and headed back to the tee box, hitting her third shot thanks to the penalty. She finished the hole with a double bogey, five-over day… which was doubly brutal, because those two extra strokes on eighteen took her from what turned out to be the cut line to being cut. Just like that, her weekend was over.

It’s been a long time since I was a sportswriter. The one thing you learn as a sportswriter (or a media writer) is that you’re covering humans, and they’re just like you, even if they do this one thing better than most. Prange, having gained enormous exposure through TV, was perfectly normal; she talked to her playing partners, was pleasant to the gallery (she signed a ball for a little boy who had been following for a while, and did so without him asking her for anything), and pulled and dropped the flag like every other weekend duffer. For those who are curious about that sort of thing, she’s actually shorter than she looked on screen- I had thought she was maybe 6’2’’but she’s closer to 5’11’’; there were also a number of complete assholes on the Golf Channel’s message boards who made cracks about her weight, which I found distressing on general principle- what difference does it make how she looks: it’s how she plays that matters; what I saw on Saturday was a player who was fit and who displayed strength and power. Anyone who wants to dispute that needs to take a look in the mirror and examine his own issues, you know? In the end, this young woman was just one of many who was working hard to be her best and make her dream of playing at the next level come true. The rest, the exposure she got… just external.

Before I knew whether or not she had made the cut, I had decided that I wasn’t going to follow her group on Sunday. I had seen what I wanted to see, and who knows; she might have seen this old sportswriter as a jinx who had brought her the crummy round. Still, it was a terrific experience all the way around: I wound up walking close to thirty holes of golf, I got some sun, and I had a lot of fun. As I watched those players who made the cut preparing Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder how their rounds would play out or where their dreams would take them; maybe next year, I’ll see some of them up here at the LPGA event; maybe I’ll see some of them on the next BIG BREAK. But if I had to guess, I’d bet I’d see most of them again at the very same place next year, grinding their way towards a better place and a better life on the Futures Tour. That’s golf as life: your dreams stay the same, but life keeps moving the tee box and letting the rough grow.

5:45 PM

Great stuff! I enjoyed reading your blog!
Fun article. Enjoyed your writing style.
I like your style. Good stuff.CGP
Thank you for writing about Ashley in the way that you did on this blog. I have known this girl personally all of her life. You're perception of her in the brief time of watching her was accurate. She is a genuine, kind and down to earth person. She also takes her golf game seriously and is probably a harder critic on herself in that manner than anyone else. I have also been disgusted by the things a few people on TGC discussion boards have been writing about her looks but soon realized that there was no point letting them anger me. They are very small human beings and I actually feel sorry for anyone who has that kind of negative energy inside themselves. As to your blog, like I said above, well written and accurate, too.
I plan on seeing the Futures ladies in August when they hit Maryland; thanks for the heads up, thanks for the well written article, and thanks for your comments concerning those who'd rather concentrate on looks rather than ability!
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