What a crazy dream Jenny Chuasiriporn had. Crazy, anyway, for a daughter of Thai immigrants living over a restaurant in Baltimore. It was Jenny's dream that one day she would go to college and play for a national champion golf team.
"It has always been my goal," she said last Saturday in Tulsa. "I'd open up a magazine and see a picture of the Arizona State team"—her eyes grew wide at the thought of the Sun Devils, winners of six women's NCAA championships in the '90s—"and I knew what I wanted to do." She laughed in her famously shy way, covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers. "I mean, I'd be lying if I said I dreamed about winning the U.S. Open."
So Jenny took on this modest challenge, to be a member of a winning team in a college sport that no one follows, that rates only agate type in some newspapers and no mention at all in others. A weird sort of golf that requires you to carry your own bag, look for your own ball in the rough and live for hugs and high fives. There are no courtesy cars, just courtesy. If only to give her dream a dash of the preposterous, Jenny decided to fulfill her goal at Duke, which had never won a national championship in any women's sport.
We'll jump over the years of practice, the junior tournaments, the nights washing dishes and doing homework in the kitchen of the restaurant. Jenny made it to Duke in the fall of '95, and last year, her junior year, she won four tournaments, made All-America for the second time, led the nation in stroke average and finished the season as the second-ranked college player. Then—you saw it—she overran her goal. Playing as an amateur in the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., Jenny made a 45-foot birdie putt on the final hole to tie Se Ri Pak for the lead. She put her hand to her mouth as if she had just blurted something embarrassing, when in fact she had dunked one of the most memorable putts in golf history. On the following day her 18-hole playoff with Pak ended in another draw, and the thing was finally settled after two holes of sudden death, with Pak the victor and Chuasiriporn the nation's sweetheart.
It was time to cash in—the agents were lined up like bellmen at a resort hotel—but Jenny said no, she was going back to Duke. You see, she hadn't fulfilled her dream. The Duke women, in their 11th trip to the NCAA championship, had finished fourth in '98.
That's why Jenny was back at the NCAA tournament last week and not in Austin at the LPGA Philips Invitational. Her Blue Devils team, strengthened by spectacular freshmen Beth Bauer and Candy Hannemann, was ranked No. 1 and favored to win the four-round, stroke-play event. Jenny, however, had not played so well as a senior, winning just once and dropping to 11th in the rankings. "Her perspective has always been 'enjoy the moment,' " said her coach, Dan Brooks, "but her moment was coming to an end, and it kind of got to her." Through three rounds at Tulsa Country Club, Jenny was 16 over par and 17 strokes behind the individual leader, Arizona State's Grace Park.
But here's how it works in college golf: Each team has five players, and the high score each day is thrown out. In Saturday's final round, with Duke clinging to a tenuous lead, Jenny missed fairways and missed greens but made 12-foot putts for par or bogey, grinding for her team as hard as she had when she was dueling Pak at the Open. Brooks again: "There are players who are good enough to win individually, but if things aren't going well they can't play with the heart of Jenny."
She was on the 15th green with Duke up by two when the storm horns sounded, ending her exquisite agony. Two hours later, with lightning cracking overhead and rainwater flooding the course, officials scrubbed the round and declared Duke the champion by the eight-shot margin it had over Arizona State and Georgia at the start of the day. Jenny's score, the highest to count for Duke, was 18 shots better than that of her team's fifth player. "I'm thrilled," she said, her dark eyes sparkling as they had at the Open. "I knew I could be part of a national championship." She gulped and added, "I guess I'm a pro now!"
There she was wrong. She'll be a pro next week, when she tees it up at the Women's Open in West Point, Miss. On Saturday night, Jenny Chuasiriporn was still an amateur, still a team player and some kind of American dream.