How an Open run for the ages forever changed its protagonist and one impressionable fan
Words by Joan Niesen
Light / Dark
As a little girl, I hated golf, but it was everywhere. Golf was my dad’s weekend alarm clock; he was at the country club at sunrise every Saturday and Sunday, ready to walk 18. Golf was what we put on TV when we tired of the pool, when our fingers were pruney and my blonde hair had dried to a greenish kind of straw.
Golf was what we did on vacation: putt-putt, a new course, a tournament near Palm Springs where we could spend the day. We didn’t discriminate between the PGA Tour and the LPGA, minor tournaments and the Masters. We took day trips to see the Senior Tour. I got pink golf balls for my birthday.
I loathed Wednesday mornings, when my mother woke me up before dawn to get in nine holes with all the other kids before swim practice. On weekend afternoons, my dad would take me with him to the driving range. That was worse; at least I could chip and putt on Wednesdays. At the driving range, I was a blur of limbs and grass and dirt, hacking divots as big as I was while dribbling balls 10 feet downhill.
I’m sure I rolled my eyes when my dad called me into his study on the first weekend of July in 1998. The U.S. Women’s Open had been on television at our house since Thursday, but on Saturday he informed me that an amateur was climbing the leaderboard at Blackwolf Run; she was four strokes back at the end of the round. By Sunday, 10-year-old me was swept up in the drama. That afternoon, the amateur turned in a 72, tied Se Ri Pak for the lead and forced a playoff.
In the span of those few hours, I became Jenny Chuasiriporn’s biggest fan.
Until that point, I despised golf because it was an attainable sport—at least for some hypothetical version of me, with better hand-eye coordination and more patience. Unlike baseball and football, the other sports we watched most, golf was a game that I could play—but when I did, it went poorly. I couldn’t relate to Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb or any of the other stars of the LPGA who seemed so calm and unflappable. I was a loud golfer who made a mess of every tee box I visited. I needed someone approachable, or improbable, or maybe a little bit of both.
I have no idea if Chuasiriporn was actually any of those things. With the hindsight of adulthood, I know she was 800 times better at golf than I was or ever will be, a legitimate college athlete who’d qualified for one of the LPGA’s biggest tournaments as a 20-year-old. But back then, even I could see that Chuasiriporn was playing out of her mind—that this weekend in Kohler was something special. And if she could go from Duke to being tied for the lead of a major, maybe I could go from child disaster to something a bit less…mortifying.
As soon as we learned the tiebreaker would be an 18-hole playoff on Monday, my brother and I begged our mother to let us watch. She did; it was one of those soupy St. Louis summer days when even our dark, cool basement felt muggy. I made a sign with markers—GO JENNY!—which I waved at the television, as if there were a chance the thing was really a two-way mirror reflected to Wisconsin. We yelled like our voices might cross two state lines.
Chuasiriporn lost, in heartbreaking fashion. She and Pak were tied after 18, and on the second hole of sudden death, Chuasiriporn made par and Pak sunk a birdie putt. It had all been too good to be true, maybe. I threw away my sign, stopped recording the VCR tape I’d put in to memorialize the tournament for future viewings. Somewhere down the line, that was trashed too.
Disappointed as I was, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the tournament in the weeks and months afterward. If a college kid whose cheeks were as chubby as mine, whose polo shirt was a size too big and ballooned out of her khaki golf shorts, could force an extra 20 holes from a future Hall of Famer at a major championship, maybe I could learn to drive the ball, or chip, or putt. I resolved to try harder, to stop hiding in the clubhouse with my book on Wednesday mornings.
I got a little bit better at golf, not a lot. I grew up. My cheeks receded. But I kept finding the poetry in sports, the improbable magic that had nothing to do with winning or losing and everything to do with new faces or too-old ones. Jenny Chuasiriporn’s example never turned me into a competitive golfer; instead, it planted one of the seeds that led to my career. That day in my parents’ basement, I was a little girl waiting to grow into something, unknowingly collecting a moment.
Eight years ago, the Open returned to Kohler, and everyone from Fox Sports to The New York Times to ESPN tracked down Chuasiriporn. They found her in suburban Maryland, where she worked as a nurse and admitted she hadn’t played a round of golf in several years. She suggested that going proto-viral in 1998 wasn’t quite the best time she’d ever had.
Now, she’s impossible to find. I tried last winter, selfishly, because I imagined telling Chuasiriporn how much that weekend meant to me—because the reporter in me wanted to hear in her own words of what came after. She competed in the Curtis Cup, turned pro after college and then quickly disappeared from the game. She went to nursing school. At some point, the daughter of Thai immigrants reverted back to her given name, Wanalee, and took her husband’s last name, Betts.
But in all those stories from 2012, she was Jenny Chuasiriporn again. I’m doing it here, too, writing about an identity that’s all but evaporated, raising a ghost who’s been relegated to microfilm and grainy YouTube videos. I’m still a mediocre golfer, and Chuasiriporn gave up the sport, the lifestyle, even her name. Yet it’s still a happy enough ending, I think. Improbable for sure. It’s just a shame I threw away the sign.
Joan Niesen is a freelance sports writer who was previously on staff at Sports Illustrated, the Denver Post and FoxSports.com. She’s written extensively about football, basketball, hockey, baseball and golf.