Pepper Says Goodbye To Golf
By Dave Shedloski
SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. - She should have been teeing it up in the first round, pumping her fist, fighting for pars, wearing her intensity not just on her sleeve but her whole being as she competed in this 59th U.S. Women's Open.
Instead, decked out in while slacks and shirt and a blue blazer, Dottie Pepper - still wearing her emotions head to toe - smiled through intermittent streams of tears as she talked about her retirement from competitive golf.
|Dottie Pepper said injuries have taken their toll, forcing her into a decison that she called her own. (Sam Greenwood/USGA)
The truculent and talented Pepper, one of the game's most fiery competitors, announced on Thursday at The Orchards Golf Club that she planned to cease playing tournament golf at the end of the year. Pepper, 38, of Jupiter, Fla., whose 17 LPGA Tour victories include two major championships, has for two years battled a series of injuries that eventually extinguished her seemingly bottomless desire.
"It's time to stop putting my body through the beating," said Pepper, who received a special exemption from the U.S. Golf Association into this Women's Open but was forced to withdraw because of lingering health issues. "All the garbage that I've gone through just to play, it's been a long time and it's just not going to get any better if I continue to play. When it starts to affect everyday life, it's time to move on. It's no longer worth the struggle."
Pepper, ninth on the LPGA's all-time money list with nearly $7 million in earnings, missed virtually all of the 2002 season after shoulder problems required surgery. Last year she finished no better than 14th in 17 starts as shoulder and neck injuries continued, and a degenerative nerve condition in her neck (a dissecting carotid artery) eventually was the final straw. She underwent an MRI last Thursday, then a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic Sunday and Monday, including a CT scan and a spinal tap. Her arms were still bruised from all the needles stuck in her, and her face was still a bit numb Thursday as she talked about leaving the game.
"It's totally my decision," she said. "I'm happy, but also sad. I'm relieved. I'm anxious to go forward. I'll feel better just not playing competitive golf. I'll play for fun, but it will be on my own terms, my own pace. I won't have to push myself. I'm looking forward to being home more. I'm going to enjoy being normal, whatever that is."
Pepper has plans to stay in the game, doing TV work this week for ESPN and NBC, and possibly pursuing more broadcasting in the future. She wants to bring a women's team golf event to her hometown of Saratoga, N.Y. Creating a women's golf apparel line is in the formative stages. She'd welcome a chance to participate again in the Solheim Cup - the biennial team event that helped define her career and was the perfect outlet for her patriotism and spirit - but next time as the U.S. captain.
She expects to play as many as six more tournaments this year with her final start likely to come at the Asahi Ryokuken International Championship at Mount Vintage, Oct. 7-10 in North Augusta, S.C.
When asked what she might miss most about tour life, she said there was little she could think of. "I've gotten so much out of it that I don't think there's anything I will miss," she said.
What she already misses, however, is going to a tournament convinced she has the game to compete and win and knowing she has prepared properly to do that.
"I'm not a player who can just come out and look at the cut number and be satisfied with that," said Pepper, wiping away more tears. "You have to be out here completely committed to doing it and completely able to do it. Anything less is unacceptable to me. I can't do that. I won't do it. That's really the bottom line."
Dave Shedloski is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.uswomensopen.com.