Hans Merensky Golf Club in Phalaborwa, South Africa—the course on which I grew up-teemed with hippos and warthogs, plus wandering elephants that sometimes knocked down trees. Back then I thought that learning to play on a course bordering Kruger National Park would prepare me for anything in life. Then I joined the LPGA.
Last season, my rookie year, I made 18 starts on the tour and didn't win a dime—that's right, I didn't make a single cut. This year I missed in my first nine tries. My closest brush with the money list came at the Australian Ladies Masters, in February, when I shot 74-73 and missed the cut by two shots. By last week's Sara Lee Classic, I was 0 for 27, so when I shot a first-round 66, I had to make sure I didn't get too excited. I had opened with a 68 at the '98 Sara Lee, but lost focus while gazing at my name on the leader board—LOPEZ, ASH—and shot a second-round 76 to miss by one. Not this time. On Saturday, in the most important round of my life, I shot a 72 and knew that my six-under total would make it. I was in!
I shot a 76 on Sunday, and my first paycheck was for $1,056. I was thrilled, considering I made just $8,000 last year: $5,000 for finishing third at the Morgantown Classic on the Futures tour, $2,000 in pro-ams and $1,000 for using a certain brand of putter. At one event I saved money by staying in a motel with the caddies. At others I used the private housing provided by the tour. I spent a lot of time behind the wheel driving my '96 Honda Civic from event to event instead of flying. In October, I went back to Q school, where I regained my card by finishing 20th, but I didn't make any money there either. (Only the top 15 got paid.)
I'm glad I stuck it out, though. I'll take my first check, put a photocopy of it in an album and try not to spend all the money in one place. I realize now that I was too intense in '98, that I need to back off and let it happen. I'm just glad it's finally happening.