It’s not a night for cynics. The Rolex LPGA Award Banquet – the annual shindig in the Ritz Carlton ballroom on the Thursday night of the CME Group Tour Championship – is always filled with heartfelt gratitude, inspiring stories, and emotional acceptance speeches, even when all the awards aren’t settled. This year, Rolex LPGA Player of the Year and the Vare Trophy for low stroke average won’t be determined until the final round on Sunday (although Lydia Ko is leading in both). But the night of the banquet is always a wonderful gathering, a time when players, sponsors, spouses and media dress to the nines and reflect on the season almost gone.
There’s no pretentious fakery in this one, unlike what you find at the Oscars or the sort of put-on show you get at the ESPYs. FYI, that one has flashing lights and stage managers to tell the audience when to applaud. The Rolex LPGA Award Banquet, while streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, is less of a show and more of a celebration of all that is good in the LPGA.
The players were terrific as always. Ko, who didn’t receive an award on Thursday night but presented The Founders award to In Gee Chun, joked with host Tom Abbott about that time last year when she had the duck hooks. “Ducks are not good,” Ko said. “No ducks.” Then you had the emotional speech by Liz Nagel, who was presented with the Heather Farr Perseverance Award for her ongoing battle with thyroid cancer. “I play for all those who are missing an important organ…for those who have to take a pill every morning just to feel ‘normal,’” Nagel said.
There were 11 Rolex First-Time Winners, tying a record, called to the stage to receive watches. Jodi Ewart Shadoff got emotional again seeing her victory replayed on one of the video screens. When Abbott interviewed her on the stage, Ewart Shadoff said, “I wasn’t sure it would ever happen,” before her voice cracked.
On a personal note, I got a little misty when an award most people don’t follow was announced. The winner of the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, given to the outstanding LPGA teacher, was Carol Preisinger, currently teaching at The Landings at Skidaway Island near Savannah, Georgia. My emotions weren’t because of Carol’s speech, which was filled with anecdotes and analogies about spending time in the right places. It wasn’t because of how long she has waited to receive this award – she’s been nominated five times and finally received the recognition she deserves. It wasn’t because she was just announced as being inducted into the LPGA Professionals Hall of Fame. I got weepy at Carol’s award because we have been lifelong friends.
She and I were No.1 and No.2 on the Pickens County High School golf team, a tiny school in the foothills of Appalachia, about a 15-minute drive from the starting point of the Appalachian Trail – an area filled with breathtaking scenery and small-town love, as well as jaw-dropping poverty and hot-blooded meanness.
Carol moved there from Marietta, a suburban-Atlanta enclave, before her junior year in high school. She resented it, never fully embracing the complexities of hillbilly culture. I was born to it. My grandfathers and great grandfathers were miners, digging marble out of the hillsides for monuments in Washington and the lobbies of New York.
Golf brought us together.
The youngest of four children, Carol migrated to the mountains when her father took the head professional job at Bent Tree, one of Atlanta’s second-home mountain communities and clubs. Her father, George, was the first PGA professional to give me a golf lesson. He also showed me his personal 8 mm footage of Ben Hogan’s swing, the equivalent of the Zapruder film back in 1978.
At high school matches, Carol was the only girl in our region. A lot of boys dropped their heads when they were paired with her, until she hit her first tee shot. Then some late-70s version of OMG was shouted.
We also went to college together where she played with future LPGA Tour star Terri Moody-Hancock and USGA champion Martha (Stacy) Leach. Carol told a story on Thursday night of practicing with her Georgia Bulldogs team when Ellen Griffin showed up and watched. “She saw me hitting fat fades and immediately jumped in to help,” Carol said. “She took time for me, a player she didn’t know.”
Carol has returned that favor a thousand-fold over the years. She thinks she followed in her father’s footsteps. What he would tell her if he was still with us, and what those who knew them both have seen for years, is that she passed him as a coach a long time ago. Thankfully, he was around to see it. There’s nothing in life that makes a father prouder.
Yes, her friends wiped their eyes and smiled on Thursday as Carol accepted the Ellen Griffin Teaching Award. Those who knew her father know that, somewhere up above, he was doing likewise.