It’s always special when a LPGA Tour player wins for the first time. The joy, the relief, the surprise, the overwhelming sense of accomplishment: those emotions and countless others gush like a firehose in the moments after the final putt falls. You sense it; you share it; you feel yourself tearing up like it’s the closing scene of “The Notebook” or “Field of Dreams.”
What a lot of fans don’t see is the gauntlet players run through after a victory.
First there is the greenside television interview. Before heading to scoring where all the numbers on the card are double checked, a winner stands in front of a camera - often covered in some form of congratulatory liquid that has just been poured on her head - answering a couple of how-does-it-feel questions from on-the-ground television talent.
Then it’s a quick hustle down the autograph line where kids, about 70-30 girls to boys, hoist hats and pin flags across the gallery rope line for the winner to sign. She’d stay longer if it weren’t for the official tugging her back to the 18th green for a trophy presentation. Unless it’s a major, network coverage is off by then. But the moment is still being captured by television cameras and scores of cell phones being held up like toasts at a royal dinner.
Next come the photos, which look like a red-carpet walk at the Oscars. “Hold the trophy up…Now, kiss the trophy…Now, hug the trophy and look at the camera.” At this point, a new winner is presented with an eye-popping new Rolex, which the long-time supporter gives to every LPGA Tour player who breaks through for the first time.
From there, the player is whisked, trophy in hand, to a sponsor gathering, either in the clubhouse of a nearby hospitality area, for some thank-yous and a round of applause.
After that, it’s off to the media center or interview area where, after giving the accomplishment a few minutes to marinate, the new winner answers some deeper questions, often giving profound insight into her struggles and doubts, a glimpse into life before the win and her outlook after.
We saw it a year ago when Sophia Popov stunned the world with a victory in the AIG Women’s Open, becoming the lowest-ranked player ever to win a major championship. Through tears, Popov talked about the hardships of the previous five years; how she had struggled with her health and a misdiagnosed case of Lyme disease; how she had considered quitting the game and gone so far as looking into graduate-school programs; how her mother, a former competitive swimmer at Stanford, had encouraged Sophia to give her game one more year, to put everything into her diet and exercise and practice regimen and see how things worked out. Popov recounted all of that, smiling through tears as she answered every question.
We saw it again this past Sunday as 11-year veteran Ryann O’Toole, arguably the fittest player on the LPGA Tour and inarguably one of the most popular, fired a closing 64 to make the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open her maiden win.
“Words cannot describe what I am feeling right now,” O’Toole said of winning in her 228th career LPGA Tour start. “I still can't even -- it seems very surreal and definitely a dream come true. I can't believe it has taken this long to win but it's finally here.
“To go into the weekend and shoot what I did, I think I stayed completely in the moment because I didn't even think about shooting 8-under [on Sunday],” she said. “I honestly feel it was one shot at a time. There were moments where I’d go to the bathroom and I'm sitting there by myself and it's quiet and I'm [saying to myself], ‘Okay, don't think about anything else, just go back to the tee shot coming up.’ Or I would draw on my yardage book to distract myself, bring myself back to the present and not get ahead of myself.”
Then she took a moment to look back to her years as a successful amateur and college player, someone who won on the Epson Tour but, despite a number of close calls and a long career, failed to find the winner’s circle on the LPGA Tour.
“As a kid, I dreamed of being No. 1 and dreamed of going out there and being this athletic golfer that just added a spice to the game,” O’Toole said. “Then, you know, life doesn't go that direction. You start pressing and having doubt, wondering: Is my time ever going to come? Do I have the ability to make this happen? Are the stars going to align? Because that's what I felt like.
“But I think with the whiplash of last year and just the uncertainty, it kind of brought this motivation [to me] for this year to have steadiness back to our normal schedule and things like that. Things are going well.
“You know, I think you get to a point in your life where you're sitting here going, okay, I'm getting married in December, and okay, my clock's ticking, I want to have kids. How much longer am I going to be out here? I thought maybe this year would be my last year. I don't even know. I haven't even announced that. I've been kind of playing it by ear.
“I think just kind of letting go of this, ‘I've got to make something happen, I've got to do this’ mindset, and just accepting there's more to life, there's a future of other things, just kind of [allowed me to] ease up out here.
“I'm Ryann in a lot of different ways rather than just Ryann the golfer.”
After that, O’Toole, like all champions, signed a mountain of pin flags for the volunteers, staff, club and sponsors before retrieving her golf bag and moving on to the next week, the next event, the next phase of a life as a LPGA Tour winner. A career milestone that she, like all first-time winners, will never forget.