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LPGA Today

The Cactus Tour - The Dream Starts in the Desert

February 28, 2013

by William Szczepanek

Foothills Golf Club

It's 4:30am. The alarm clock is silenced with a slam of the hand. Time to rise and shine.

"Nooo! It's still dark out."

Roll out of bed. Turn thermostat up. It's freezing in here.

Take shower - check.
Turn on Morning Drive - check.
Get dressed in her new golf togs - check.
Have breakfast - check.
Grab purse, remember checkbook - check.
Car keys - check.
Ready to go out the door - ch...
Stop.
Turn around. Get golf clubs from closet. Stop to admire her own name on the bag.

"Should have put the clubs in the trunk last night."

Okay. Ready.

She walks out the front door and is met by the chill of the damp morning air and the unmistakable smell of the creasote bush, that “heavenly essence of the desert,” that only someone whose been to Southern Arizona would understand.

Put clubs in trunk.
Turn ignition key. Car starts. Good.
Can't see out the window. Bad.

"What is this? Frost on the windshield? This is Arizona!"

Temperature sensor in car reads - 34 degrees.

"Should have put outerwear on today, but it's still in the bag."

She fumbles for the infrequently used defroster and reluctantly gets out of the car to scratch the windshield with her finger nails. So much for the manicure.

"Arrgh."

Sara Brown The drive to the golf course should be easy. Very little traffic. It's really dark out and the signs are not well lit. She makes only two wrong turns and arrives at the course 15 minutes early. Good.

Her stomach starts to churn as she looks in the rearview mirror to check her makeup. She opens the car door to a blast of cold air and walks quickly to the trunk and laces her new, teal golf shoes using the car bumper for support. Goose bumps spread both from nervousness and the cold. As she pulls her clubs from the trunk it starts to rain.

"This is Arizona. It is not supposed to rain. At least it isn't snow."

She unzips the bag and pulls out her raingear, desperately trying to get covered before she gets too wet. The raindrops bite at the side of her face beneath the bill of her cap as she waves to other young ladies walking to the practice area, avoiding the puddles that twinkle from the utility lights. The rabbits have not left their holes yet and watch the parade in silence from their secret vantage point behind nearby bushes.

Time to warm up - check.
Time to practice driving - check.
Time to practice putting - check. 
15 minutes until tee time. It's still dark.

Blair O'NealWelcome to the Cactus Tour in February. A couple of dozen young ladies, and a few not so young, arrive for the sole purpose of playing golf to get ready to play golf. The Cactus Tour provides a crucial component for success at golf - competition. You can practice all you want, but you have to stand up under pressure to succeed. These ladies pay to have this opportunity to play under pressure, so they can be more ready to pay to play the following week under more pressure on the Symetra Tour (once the FUTURES Tour). These are the rigors that these amateur and professional golfers put themselves through to make it the next level, the LPGA. Some of them are working through injuries. Some of them are preparing for upcoming events. Some are just getting started and need someplace to play.

Mallory BlackwelderIt's a strange system we have in this country. Most of these girls were stars on their high school teams. In many cases they were so good that none of the boys could beat them. A very select few turn pro after high school. Others get scholarships to various colleges and universities around the country where they hone their skills and are encouraged by their supporters to become the next dominant player on the LPGA Tour. But something strange happens between school and the LPGA.

Nothing.

That's right nothing magical happens. There are no scouts offering them bonuses to sign for a team. There is no grooming by a professional organization to get them ready for the Big Show. Some may get sponsors and some will be sponsored by the Bank of MomandDad. Those who come from a wealthy family have a distinct advantage. In many cases it now becomes a very expensive proposition with no guarantees. Either win and keep winning or go home.

This is really where it's at. The struggle to make it to the next level. A singular effort, sometimes lonely and often a sacrifice by both the young  lady and her family, drives them to succeed or disappoint. Not enough time for some of the other fun things that young people look forward to today. A lot of travel, a lot of hotels, a lot of driving, but without the Cactus Tour there would be much less time for preparation and less of a chance for success.

Mike BrownThe sun breaks over the nearby foothills. It warms the body and the soul. There is one thing about the Arizona sun - it's intense - like these young ladies. It can take the chill off of a winter-like day in February or roast you alive come May. These ladies will have the experience of both. The players finish practice and move in an orderly fashion to the first tee as their allotted time approaches. They are introduced individually and professionally by Mike Brown, the Tour Director, who almost single-handedly works to provide the opportunity for young women to have a chance at their dream. He provides a stepping stone. And it's not just for our own young girls, but players from around the world find their way to the Cactus Tour.

Thwhack! A drive sails down the first fairway to a modicum of applause from Mike, a player or two in the group and a distinguished-looking, gray-haired guy who finds this struggle appealing. The applause diminishes quickly and is replaced by the sounds of the desert.

With so few LPGA and Symetra Tour events in the Phoenix area, usually one each per year, why not visit the course on one of the Cactus Tour dates and cheer these ladies on. The price is right - it's free - and the ladies will appreciate it.

Who might you see? The answer may be surprise you. At age 17 So Yeon Ryu's first professional win occurred in 2008 at the Wigwam Golf Resort in Cactus Tour play. Some who have recently graced the fairways on the Cactus Tour, including the Arizona Women's Open, include LPGA pros like: 
Dina Ammaccapane, Beth Bader, Irene Cho, Esther Choe, Carlota Ciganda (Spain), Diana D'Alessio, Kathleen Ekey, Louise Friberg (Sweden), Nicole Hage, Mina Harigae, Jennifer Johnson, Taylore Karle, Mindy Kim, Stephanie Kono, Pernilla Lindberg (Sweden), Paige Mackenzie, Sydnee Michaels, Anna Nordqvist (Sweden), Mikaela Parmlid (Sweden), Jane  Rah, So Yeon Ryu (South Korea), Dewi Claire Schreefel, Alena Sharp, Jenny Shin, Karin Sjodin (Sweden), Louise Stahle, Alison Walshe, and Cheyenne Woods.

And there is long list of those who have appeared on The Big Break, some of whom also play on the LPGA including:
Lori Atsedes, Mallory Blackwelder, Annie Brophy, Sara Brown, Taryn Durham, Shannon Fish, Meghan Hardin, Selenee Henderson, Natalia Ghilson, Christina Lecuyer, Marcela Leon, Allison Micheletti, Blair O'Neal, Ryan O'Toole, Elena Robles, Nicole Smith, Christina Stockton, Maiya Tanaka, and Kim Welch.

If I have forgotten anyone in the above categories please do not berate me, just send me an e-mail and I'll add you to the list.

The real fun, however, is in seeing a player you've never heard of before and then catching them on the Golf Channel the following year. If you like watching golf this experience will add another dimension to your appreciation for the sport. You can get Cactus Tour information on tee times and the field for the week at their website, The Cactus Tour, the place where the players look to play.