For One L.P.G.A. Golfer, a Million-Dollar Prize Is Worth the Pain

PORTLAND, Ore. — The South African golfer Lee-Anne Pace was ready to retire this spring. She had been on the road for more than a decade, her body ached almost constantly, and her peaks, which included topping the Ladies European Tour’s money list in 2010, seemed like specks in a rearview mirror.

Then she heard from her sister, who had stumbled across a shocking list online. It was the standings for a new season-long risk-reward competition, believed to be the first contest in golf to offer an equal bonus for the winners from both the PGA and L.P.G.A. tours. The prize: $1 million, the kind of single payday only two other women — the winners of the U.S. Women’s Open and the Tour Championship — will see this year.

“And you’re leading,” Pace’s sister, Simone Krug, told her. “So you can’t quit.”

Pace, 38, had no idea. As far as she was concerned, the season had been a disaster. Her accountant had told her that, after expenses, she was $50,000 in the hole for the year.

But her sister was right. She couldn’t quit, no matter how much her love of the game had succumbed to exhaustion, pain and a longing to return to South Africa. Most days, Pace said, “I just want to go home.”

But Pace, who joined the L.P.G.A. in 2007, will make at least one more start, next week in Texas.

“The odds are very high against me even being in this position, she said.

Pace, who ranks outside the top 50 in driving distance, outside the top 140 in putting and outside the top 250 in the world, has no idea how she has managed to string together the best cumulative score in the competition, in which players accumulate points based on how they navigate strategically challenging holes designated each week. Her nearest challenger, Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, is the women’s world No. 7, the reigning player of the year, a two-time major winner and one of the tour’s longer hitters.

“This year’s been quite weird,” Pace said in August, “because I wanted to stop playing four or five weeks ago.”

Neck, back and hip injuries have limited Pace to 15 starts and $46,856 in earnings, well short of her yearly travel and training expenses, which she said are roughly $100,000 to $200,000. But since that conversation with her sister, the chase for the $1 million bonus that seems tantalizingly, teasingly within her grasp has consumed Pace, who must log 40 competitive rounds to be eligible for the money.

Pace is one round short of meeting the round minimum and still leads in the competition. But her body is breaking down even as she keeps calculating the million-dollar math in her head.

“I definitely do think about it,” said Pace, referring to the $1 million bonus put up by Aon, a global professional services firm. The payout would be close to 15 million South African rand, which, she said, “is a huge thing, obviously.” She added: “Money’s never been a motivation for me, if that makes sense, but everyone’s really going on about it at home. It’s super important because it can change my life.”

So she will tee it up next week at Old American Golf Club in suburban Dallas, and hope she can somehow hold on to her lead.

Brooks Koepka, the big-hitting, major-winning, world No. 1, pocketed the men’s Aon Challenge bonus in August in what amounted to a gold bow atop his $9 million season earnings.

ImagePace rested in between holes during the Cambia Portland Classic.
Pace rested in between holes during the Cambia Portland Classic.CreditJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Pace, a nine-time winner on the Ladies European Tour, won five of those titles in 2010. In 2014, she won the L.P.G.A.’s Blue Bay tournament in China’s Hainan Island and rose to a career-high No. 31 in the women’s world rankings. In 2016, she posted three top 10s, including a second place, and made $523,939.

Those were the days, she said, when she could afford to pay a physiotherapist, a body mechanic, if you will, to keep her body in alignment while she was traveling.

“I felt great during those years,” Pace said. “I wish I could have stuck with him.”

But she stopped working with him as a cost-saving measure. “And it was pretty much downhill from there,” she said with a rueful laugh.

Pace, whose gait calls to mind someone walking barefoot over rocks, was five rounds short of the Aon minimum going into her most recent start, at the Portland Classic in Oregon in late August. She played the first 36 holes in 11 under par while taking mostly half-swings with her driver to protect her injured back. She went into the weekend tied for fourth — and fully aware that a top-three finish would pave her way into the lucrative, limited-field fall events in Asia for which she has not yet qualified.

She played the final 36 holes in eight over par and finished tied for 57th — but somehow she remained atop the Aon Challenge standings. Pace’s plan was to play in both of the final two events in the United States before the tour moved to Asia, starting with this week’s tournament in Indianapolis.

Her body had other plans.

“Unfortunately, playing four rounds in Portland did more damage,” said Pace, who added, “I don’t think it will be wise to play two more events with a back injury.”

During the three weeks of September that the L.P.G.A. Tour was on hiatus for the Solheim Cup, Pace returned to her part-time residence in France, where she received a diagnosis of a spinal disorder, Maignes Syndrome, which is characterized by difficulty twisting the torso without great discomfort.

Crisscrossing continents takes a toll on the body in the best of circumstances. But with Pace in serious pain and her game failing, the decision to bypass the tournament in Indianapolis this week to rest came easier.

“When you’re not playing well, there’s no real sense in keeping at it,” Pace said. “I feel like I can do a lot more with my life now, nearly being 40, than to keep traveling and be away from my family.”

Pace grew up in wine country, in Paarl, in the Western Cape province, and though she rarely returns during the season because it’s too far to travel during her weeks off, it is never far from her mind. Pace’s sister, Krog, this year had her first child, a daughter named Cara whom Pace described as “the light of my life.”

She considered giving up the $1 million chase before Portland. The week before, her hips were hurting her so much, she withdrew during the first round of the CP Open in Canada, on the hole after she registered a quadruple-bogey 9. As it happened, she recorded the high score on that week’s designated risk-reward hole, and because she withdrew, the score did not count against her season-long total.

Pace described as “hurtful” any suggestion that she withdrew expressly to protect her lead. She recalled last year’s Women’s P.G.A. Championship, where she essentially disqualified herself midround when she realized she had violated a rule by using a sand wedge she had damaged while slamming it against a stake after a poor shot. Nobody else would have noticed the damage if she hadn’t brought it to a rules official’s attention.

“People tend to forget things like that,” Pace said with a sigh.

She added: “After Canada I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I seriously nearly went home.”

Pace said her sister talked her out of it by reminding her how many people in South Africa she could help through charitable giving if she were, against all odds, to take home the $1 million bonus.

“She was like, ‘It’s not just for yourself,’” Pace said, “and it’s true.”

And so she hobbles on, long past her peak but ever closer to a life-changing payday.

Post Comment

five × two =