Rookie pro Ulrika “Rikki” Van-Niekerk remembers the sick feeling she had last Friday when her clubs were stolen as she prepared for this week’s LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament.
The player from Cape Town, South Africa was practicing with fellow player Ashley Knoll of Texas at a private course in Ormond Beach, Fla., when the incident happened. Sitting in the club’s restaurant, Knoll saw a man carrying a golf bag similar to her friend’s bag.
“Ashley said, ‘I think somebody just took your bag,’ but I didn’t think it was possible,” said Van-Niekerk, 26. “So I went to the bag drop area and sure enough, it was gone.”
Knoll ran out of the grill area to the parking lot and saw the man throw the clubs into his car. He quickly reversed and sped out of the parking lot.
“We pursued him in our car,” admitted Van-Niekerk. “I don’t know what we would have done if we had caught him, but he got away.”
The two players called the police and filed a report. Then, the reality of trying to prepare for LPGA Q-school without golf clubs set in.
“Ashley kept saying, ‘It’s OK. We’re going to get you some clubs and it’s going to be OK,’” said Van-Niekerk. “All I could think about was that man taking my clubs. I hope he’s hungry or needs the money for his kids and that he’s not a drug addict just trying to sell my clubs for money.”
Van-Niekerk began calling equipment reps from the different golf club manufacturing companies, but because it was Friday after Thanksgiving, everybody was still on holiday and nobody was answering their phones.
Next, the rookie called LPGA Futures Tour veteran Mo Martin, her “big sister” on the Futures Tour. Martin called the LPGA’s club technician, Paul Boehmer, who called Van-Niekerk and offered to build her some clubs.
“I think I was more upset about it than she was,” said Boehmer, who travels with the LPGA’s club repair trailer on the LPGA Tour. “You try to help players. The most important thing for her this week is being confident with what clubs she has in her hands.”
The two met at 7 a.m. last Saturday and by noon, the rookie had a replacement set of clubs for Q-school.
“Kindness like that is just amazing,” said Van-Niekerk. “It was Paul’s day off and he came in especially to help me. These were his own personal clubs and he yanked out the shafts and put in new shafts to fit me.”
Van-Niekerk was most concerned about the loss of her first-generation Odyssey Two-Ball putter, which she had used since first learning to play golf. That particular putter model is no longer in production and the South African knew she would have to adjust to another style of putter quickly for Q-school.
“It was kind of like a piece of me that has been there throughout the years,” she said. “I’m not angry. I’m just really sad about losing my putter.”
Word about Van-Niekerk’s misfortune reached LPGA Tour member Katie Futcher. Futcher was still at home in Houston preparing to leave for the Q-school in Florida to caddie for a friend. She started thinking about the clubs she had at home and the clubs to which she had access.
“ I thought, gosh, I’m still here in my hometown with all these clubs and I’d be happy to bring her whatever I can,” said Futcher, who found the rookie an “old-school” Odyssey Two-Ball putter.
“I emailed her a picture of the putter I found before I brought it to her and she said, ‘Yeah, that will work,’” said Futcher. “So I packed it in my golf bag and brought it to her.”
Van-Niekerk had only seen Futcher on TV in LPGA tournaments and was thrilled to meet the LPGA player in the parking lot at LPGA International for the first time.
“I walked up to her and shook her hand and she handed me the putter,” said Van-Niekerk. “She’s an LPGA player. She didn’t have to help me, but she did.”
Even with clubs now in her hands, the South African knew she still had a few other items to piece together in time for Wednesday’s first round. The golf pro at the club where her clubs were stolen loaned her his golf bag and others also pitched in to help.
“Right after I got the clubs from Paul, I was walking around hugging my brand new clubs, but I didn’t have anything to put them in,” laughed Van-Niekerk. “And then I went to the range to hit balls and realized that I didn’t have any tees or gloves.”
Ann Cain of the Acushnet Company gave her some Titleist golf balls. Two other friends loaned her some rain gear. PING began making her a replacement set to be shipped this week and Nick Springer from Callaway rounded up a couple of different original Odyssey Two-Ball putters that also will be shipped this week.
A few sentimental things in her bag could not be replaced, however.
Van-Niekerk had a 1969 U.S. one-dollar coin in her bag that was given to her by an assistant coach in college while she was at Texas Tech University. And she also had a little Garfield cat hanging on the outside of her bag that was given to her after high school in South Africa before she came to college in the United States.
“I really wanted to come to America and my best friend back home gave it to me and said, ‘Every time you look at Garfield, remember that there are so many people back home supporting you and wishing you the best,’” she said. “It’s been on my bag ever since, for seven years.”
But while the tools she needs for this week’s tournament have been replaced and the sentimental items she lost will now become fond memories, Van-Niekerk has remained upbeat about a situation that could have taken a really bad turn at the most inopportune time in her first appearance at LPGA Q-school’s final stage.
“The pieces are coming together and I’m ready to go,” said Van-Niekerk. “There are really no words to express how grateful I am to everybody who helped me out. All I can say is, The Grinch has not spoiled Q-school for me.”
By Lisa D. Mickey