Chuasiriporn still recalls 1998 Open fondly

Chuasiriporn still recalls 1998 Open fondly

Published Jun. 21, 2012 5:00 a.m. ET

It was a look of pure joy that 14 years later, still brings smiles to many Wisconsin sports fans and golf devotees across America.

On the 72nd hole of the 1998 U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, 20-year old amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, a rising senior at Duke University, rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt to move into a first-place tie with Se Ri Pak and force an 18-hole playoff the following day.

As the network cameras zoomed in for a reaction shot, Chuasiriporn's face erupted, a look that was equal parts elation and astonishment.

"That was the expression of someone who never, ever, ever expected to make that putt," Chuasiriporn said.

She would lose to Se Ri Pak on the 20th hole that Monday, but clearly it appeared the LPGA had found its next rising star.

However, as it turned out, stardom and the game itself would not figure into Chuasiriporn's future.

"I haven't played golf in four years," Chuasiriporn told me in a recent phone interview from her home in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as a nurse.

She had a much different outlook in the summer of '98. An all-American at Duke, (she won that honor four times and led the Blue Devils to their first NCAA women's golf championship in her senior season) Chuasiriporn earned a spot on the Curtis Cup squad -- an American amateur team that competes against a team from Great Britain -- and qualified for the U.S. Open.

"It was a challenging course," Chuasiriporn said of Blackwolf Run. "The rough was really tough but it was a beautiful course. It was in perfect condition. Everything was so green."

Her brother, Joey, was her caddie and her family traveled to Kohler from suburban Baltimore where Jenny grew up.

"I really enjoyed having that time with my family and just decided to take it one hole at a time. I had no thoughts of finishing in the top ten, let alone runner-up."

But after opening rounds of 72 and 71 and a heroic 75 on Saturday when much of the field struggled to break 80, Chuasiriporn found herself in contention. And then came the putt on the 18th green late Sunday afternoon.

"My brother told me, 'don't worry about the line. I'll get the read. You worry about the speed.' He walked around the hole and then said, 'one foot left. Give it a good run.'"

"They really hadn't posted scores then. I thought Se Ri was up by two shots. My brother was much more aware of what was going on. Then I putted and it went in. I was overjoyed."

Chuasiriporn still didn't realize the significance of her putt until she was reviewing her scorecard.

"I was in the scoring trailer with Pat Hurst and I saw a TV monitor showing my face on the bottom of the screen when Se Ri was putting. I asked Pat what she was putting for."

Chuasiriporn soon discovered that she would be playing for the championship the following day. Her extraordinary experience at Blackwolf Run changed Jenny's life. But many of those changes were unwelcome.

"When I went back to campus that fall, I could feel all of these eyes on me, people whispering 'That's Jenny.' I was becoming uncomfortable in my own skin. I am kind of shy, introverted."

Finishing second at the U.S. Open also changed Jenny's timetable.

"If I hadn't been runner-up, I probably would have still turned pro but would have taken my time about it, maybe traveled abroad. But after the Open, everything was accelerated."

"There were sponsor's exemptions in pro tournaments. Everything was focused on turning pro instead of enjoying my senior year. It was tough to enjoy the game."

Chuasiriporn joined the LPGA circuit fulltime after graduating from Duke but found it difficult to fit in.

"When you turn pro, it's all about you, what you shoot every round, how much money you make," she noted. "Always looking to improve your swing, work on your mechanics. That's really not me. My heart wasn't in it."

Chuasiriporn's parents, who own a Thai restaurant in Maryland, supported her financially and emotionally.

"I was taking their hard-earned money," Chuasiriporn recalled. "It was hard to back away from the game. I didn't want to disappoint my family and friends."

"I wasn't playing well early on and I wondered if I wasn't enjoying the experience because I wasn't playing well. But then there were a couple of tournaments where I was in contention and I still wasn't enjoying it, and I knew then I needed to walk away."

After spending a year as an assistant women's golf coach at the University of Virginia, Chuasiriporn enrolled in nursing school at the University of Maryland, where she got her degree in 2006.

"It was so different than golf, more challenging than I ever thought, said Chuasiriporn, who now works in the ICU cardiac unit in a Richmond hospital.  "I like what I do. It fits my personality.

"In golf, you try to beat other people. Here, I get to help people."

Chuasiriporn is married with "no kids yet" and says that she gets a craving to hit golf balls "every once in awhile" but hasn't picked up a club in four years.

"Everyone always asks me to play or asks for me to give them lessons," she said. "I don't do that. Maybe, years later when I have kids, I'll take them out to the course."

Chuasiriporn says she will watch TV coverage of next month's U.S. Open when it returns to Blackwolf Run.

"I'll be excited to see the holes again," she noted. "When I played there it was kind of a blur.

"I played against the best in the world there and showed I could contend," Chuasiriporn added. "I have zero regrets. It all happened for a reason. I'm not glad I didn't win then but I am way happier now after walking away from the game."