Article Courtesy of Duramed FUTURES Tour
Photos by Scott Miller
Maybe her golf equipment wasn't the newest model from the biggest brands. And maybe she didn't have a closet full of the most desirable clothing labels or arrive at tournaments in a shiny late-model car with a loaded iPod pumping the top tunes into her brain.
But CHRISTI CANO never felt disadvantaged growing up in San Antonio, Texas. Sometimes penny-pinched, yes, but never lacking for the basic tools to win golf tournaments, or earn a golf scholarship to college, or to look like David against Goliath in superstar-studded amateur golf.
"If I'm beating some of those girls with what I had, it just helped my confidence," said Cano, 28, who turned professional in the fall of 2003. "My original PING irons were older than I was and were passed down from my brothers and reshafted for me. I used those until I started in high school and then my next set were Cobra irons that my brother bought from somebody's trunk."
But those clubs did all the talking for Cano, who is so quiet and understated that she could be easily missed if it weren't for the fact that she regularly shows up on Sundays in the last few pairings - spots reserved for tournament leaders -- and tosses up red numbers on tournament leaderboards.
As naturally talented as Cano may be and as hard as she has always worked, mathematically, the odds were against her from the start. She grew up in a largely Mexican-American community in San Antonio and attended Thomas Edison High School, which she says is "96 percent Hispanic." She was the only player on the girls' golf team who could break 100, and she got her start playing San Pedro, a par-3 course near her house. At the suggestion of an uncle, her parents - who didn't play golf - began taking Christi and her three older brothers to San Pedro.
Young Christi was 2 years old and excelled quickly in the game, but from age 6-10, she also participated in Ballet Folklorico, traditional Mexican dancing from the various regions of Mexico. The youngster would dance in her colorful handmade costumes in front of thousands of people who came to San Antonio for its annual "Fiesta," which Cano describes as her city's version of a tamer, more ethnic Mardi Gras. But as she advanced into such tournaments as the Junior World Championship and found herself facing advanced junior players, such as a young LORENA OCHOA, Cano realized she now had to pick between golf and dance. That's when the dancing stopped.
"I was just having fun," she said. "I didn't realize that I was pretty good."
"Pretty good" meant that she won the state high school golf championship twice and that she was a four-time winner of the San Antonio Women's Amateur Championship (1999-2002). It also meant she was named the 2001 "Most Influential Sportswoman of the Year" in South Texas, and to the Canon Cup West team, and to the U.S. team for the 2002 Fuji-Xerox Collegiate Golf Championship.
"She was the lone wolf going up against the big schools and she would win big," said good friend Mike Flanagan, a real estate appraiser in San Antonio who showed up last week in Brownsville, Texas, to caddie for his golf partner. "I've known Christi since she was a little girl and I've taken a big interest in her over the years because I want to see her do well."
Flanagan, who used to caddie for PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, knows Cano's neighborhood. He knows her challenges. And he sees her support.
"The Hispanic Community in San Antonio is a tight-knit bunch," he said. "Everybody knows Christi and everybody is pulling for her. She's had so much going against her. A lot of people would have quit, but not her."
Flanagan remembers Cano as a talented "Brack Rat," one of the kids who played Brackenridge Golf Course -- a public course in San Antonio -- who learned to scrap and scrape for everything. Cano was one of those naturally gifted players with solid ball striking ability, but whose limited resources often didn't allow her to travel and compete.
When letters from college coaches began arriving at her family's home offering Cano the chance to attend college -- an opportunity that her parents never had -- it was just what she needed to take the next big step. She had never ventured far from home or away from the Latin culture that she knew, but when Oklahoma State University came knocking, Cano packed up her bags and went to Stillwater to become a Cowgirl alongside teammates Linda Wessberg, KARIN SJODIN and ANNIE YOUNG.
"They gave us everything but underwear in college -- new clubs, gloves, balls, shoes, bags and rain gear -- and I was so appreciative of it all," said Cano. "I never had the top-of-the-line stuff until I played college golf."
Fighting for her spot on Oklahoma State's travel team sharpened her game and by 2002, Cano had earned an honorable mention nod as an All-American. So when her college eligibility was over, the next logical step was to try the professional tours. Cano qualified for the Duramed FUTURES Tour and prepared to launch her pro career in 2004.
A friend held a fund-raising event at a local San Antonio golf course and solicited sponsorships to help send her out on the Duramed FUTURES Tour. But with $6,000 in hand, the man skipped town and Cano never saw the money.
"It was a shocker to me because this guy had helped me out for several years," said Cano.
In both 2004 and 2005, Cano was only able to travel and play in three tournaments on the Duramed FUTURES Tour. As much progress as she was making, her travel plans were simple. When she ran out of money, she went home.
But two things happened in 2005 that made Cano want to tough it out and find a way to play professional golf. First, she qualified for and competed in the U.S. Women's Open. And that fall at the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament, she earned full status for 2006.
"The day I got my LPGA card, I was bawling," said Cano. "It finally happened."
Cano played in only nine LPGA tournaments that year. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her left wrist and was forced to ice and rest. She also found herself refocusing her energy for the 2007 season.
This time, friends and family held a barbecue fund-raiser. Someone donated the meat and Cano's large family made the beans and rice and side dishes. She managed to travel an entire season on the $25,000 that was raised, carefully watching her money and spending more nights that she can remember in a Motel 6.
Of course, Cano had a few adventures along the way. Last year, while in Dallas playing the Texas Women's Open, someone smashed a glass window in the hotel room next door early in the morning, The cops came, a man ran and at 3 a.m., the golfer was wide awake, fearful of what was going on outside her door.
"The police tasered the guy right in front of my room," said Cano. "I checked out the next day."
But while the game she loved and the career she has chosen sometimes took her out of her comfort zone, her father, John, and mother, Ramona, always encouraged Cano. So many times when things didn't go as planned, she would hear the calm voice of her father saying, "That's OK, Mija" (Spanish for "my daughter").
Her father underwent quadruple by-pass heart surgery in 2005, but his health never fully recovered. In 2007, while playing at the LPGA's Wegmans LPGA in Rochester, N.Y., Cano received a phone call from her brother, who told her to come home. She had spoken by telephone to her father on Friday morning before he slipped into a coma. He did not respond until she arrived back home in Texas on Saturday, then he spoke again. But by Sunday, her father was gone.
"He was her rock and it's taken a while for her to get over his death," said Flanagan. "But as Christi has always done, she's still fighting. A lot of people would have quit, but this young lady has a lot of heart."
Christi Cano will have a chance to sleep in her own bed this week as the Duramed FUTURES Tour holds a tournament in San Antonio. For so many people in her community, it will be a chance for them to watch their local star compete. And if only for a week, Cano will feel the comfort of home intermeshing with the sometimes-challenging path she has chosen.
In four events this season, she has two top-10 finishes. Earlier this month at the Tour's tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla., she had a two-shot lead heading into the final round, finishing tied for seventh. Flanagan plans to again caddie for Cano this week, adding that "it would mean a ton for her to play well at home" with so many friends and family members watching.
And for so many young girls in her San Antonio community who now have Ochoa to watch on TV and their own Christi Cano to emulate -- players who look just like them -- there is an element of hope that wasn't always there when Cano got started. It was something that she had to learn to look for and to believe in, and to make herself fully understand that her sense of worth had nothing to do with what was in her pocketbook.
"It's hard to say what my life would be without golf," she said. "I still see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and now, I expect myself to be in the lead every week. If I don't believe that, then I don't need to be out here."