LINKS LETTER, 2009 ANNUAL EDITION

THE MEANING IN MEMORIES

By Jeff Hopper

In the world according to Leta Lindley, you play professional golf with one goal in mind. Win.

Hoist the trophy, cash the check, win.

Every start begins with the same idea.

Which in Lindley’s case invites the one big question: Could she ever have imagined that it would take 295 LPGA Tour starts to get there?

And then you realize once again, that this is not the world according to a whole lot of other players. This is the world according to Leta Lindley and in her world, while golf may be focused on winning, life isn’t always focused on golf. You see, it’s a big world Leta Lindley lives in, one with all kinds of room for home and family and things that are not golf. More than anything, perhaps, there is room for the kind of perspective that keeps all these other things in order and still keeps one pursuing the game’s ultimate thrill.

Here’s a strong candidate for major influence on Lindley’s perspective: her father. He’s the one who taught her that every choice leads to an outcome. And not every outcome is worth the pursuit.

It was Lindley’s father who got her started in the game. She was nine.

“I don’t know that it was golf I loved so much, but just spending time with my father that I enjoyed,” Lindley said in an interview from her home in Florida just a couple of weeks after the 2008 campaign.

“Over the course of the years I came to love the game, but most of my memories as a junior came from the time that I spent with my dad on the driving range and on the golf course, and the different sacrifices he made so I would have the opportunity to play.”

Sacrifices from the daughter’s perspective, perhaps, especially after the passing of years. But from Dad’s viewpoint, almost certainly all joy.

“My dad was able to be flexible with his hours with his job, so he would take me to school, and drop me off, and pick me up. After school we would go to the golf course every day,” Lindley remembers. “Probably from three o’clock on, we were spending time at the golf course together.”

As Leta was an only child, Dad’s time belonged to her alone. And in the midst of all the enjoyment came some big lessons.

“He had a way of guiding me in a direction versus forcing me. Instead of forcing me to make certain decisions, he just kind of gently guided me down the right path. He had a kind of special way. It was just through talking and playing devil’s advocate with me: ‘Well, if you make this decision, this is what would happen’—teaching me to think through my decisions and what the consequences might be down the road.”

Marlin Lindley’s instruction was specific: Respect the game. Control your temperament. Look for the good, even when the shots are bad.

And Leta took to the instruction. When her father suggested that she try to earn her way to college via golf, she played and excelled at the junior level. Eventually, she made her way from her childhood home near San Diego to the University of Arizona. The weather and the coach both looked sunny, a view of the world much like Leta’s, and besides, “it was just far enough away from home, but close enough to get there if I needed it.”

Lindley’s college career was exceptional. Four times she was named All-America. And in the final three years, she was Academic All-America as well.

“I’m very proud that I was able to balance academics and athletics,” she says. “My parents always stressed the importance of getting your education and getting your degree, and it was important for me to finish what I started. I wanted to have that to fall back on if golf didn’t work out for me.”

But golf was working out quite nicely.

She turned professional in 1994, after a medalist showing at the U.S. Women’s Amateur that summer. Just months later, she qualified as non-exempt for the 1995 LPGA season. With two high-caliber finishes, including a fifth place showing in the U.S. Women’s Open, Lindley’s rookie season pushed her forward. Her first win, however, was unimaginably far away.

The meantime wasn’t bad, though. For Lindley was getting to know the next great influence on her life perspective. His name was Matt Plagmann, and after four years of dating, the couple was married at the end of Lindley’s rookie season. Lindley’s father died when she was 20. In many ways, Plagmann filled the hole he left.

“My mom was pleased,” Lindley recalls, “because she didn’t like the idea of me traveling the country by myself.”

Lindley and Plagmann have been nearly constant companions ever since, with Plagmann working Lindley’s bag as her caddie every season but one.

Lindley is effusive in her praise of her husband, saying, “He’s like my right hand.”

As a caddie, Lindley says, Plagmann brings an athlete’s smarts and a coach’s encouragement. “He’s a real asset on the golf course because he exudes confidence. I think, Well, gosh, if he’s so confident about it, how can I not be confident? He’s a very large part of my success.”

Lindley has chosen to keep her maiden name, as many Tour players do to avoid confusion with their early career. But she is quick to clarify matters with those who mistake Matt as “Mr. Lindley.”

She explains: “I have tried my best to make it a team thing: We played our best or we shot 69 or we shot 81. Matt is just as much a part of my 66s as he is my 80s. He likes to say, ‘I’m only as good as my player,’ but everything has been a team effort.”

The greatest team effort between the two, of course, has been the raising of their children. “You look at those little faces,” Lindley begins, “and I can’t believe that we made them—you know, by the hand of God. It’s a miracle, for sure. Nothing that I do on the golf course can eclipse my children or being a mom—nothing. I could win 20 times and yet molding these little people and teaching them, nothing that I ever do will be more important than that.”

But again, it’s not something she does alone. Plagmann is right by her side. When she needs extra time on the range or putting green, Plagmann will arrange to take the children, Cole and Reese, early to the Tour’s on-site daycare facility. Their “nightlife” on the road is spent with their children, and they are equally wrapped up with their little ones when they are at home.

“We don’t do a whole lot without our children,” Lindley says. “We really like being there for the kids and playing with the kids in the cul-de-sac out in the front yard, gathering with our neighbors when we’re home.”

Once a year, Leta and Matt get away on their own, to Pebble Beach, California, for the Callaway Invitational. Lindley is a Callaway staffer. The weekend together, though something of a busman’s holiday, provides an extra bit of opportunity to grow memories for the couple.

Memories have value for Lindley. Their archiving in a growing set of scrapbooks is one thing she does away from the golf course to occupy her time. She says she has always kept albums of her playing highlights—”maybe someday my children will want to show their children what Grandma and Grandpa did.” Her attention now, though, has turned from her own clippings to pictures that brighten her children.

During her pregnancies, she has had far more time to build upon her scrapbooks, but the collections maintain a fascination for her children even when the pace of Lindley’s hobby slows down. “They love looking at the albums and looking at the pictures of them when they were smaller, and they like to point out who’s who. All the time my son asks me, ‘Mommy, can we bring out the books? Bring out the books!’ So now that I see that they love it so much, there’s definitely no going back. I have to continue.”

Every memory, like every person, brings perspective. But not every memory is easy. During a normal ultrasound during Lindley’s pregnancy with Cole, images revealed a “bright bowel,” a possible indicator for Down Syndrome. At first, the indication was at the lowest level, but it was enough to mean more frequent evaluations for Lindley and her baby—appointments, as she says, with “Dr. Doom.”

Sure enough, as the pregnancy progressed, the bright level increased.

“I was having a major meltdown,” Lindley says. “I was hormonal anyway, and I didn’t know what to do.”

As a young girl, Lindley had only a little religious instruction, joining some neighbors at Sunday school now and then. Later, she dated a boy who was connected with his church youth group, and again she made a foray into church. But she had “always felt that someone was watching over me, or that God was working in my life.” So when this crisis in her pregnancy unleashed her emotions, Lindley turned to Cris Stevens, the leader of the Women’s Professional Golf Fellowship.

“I reached out to her and I asked her if she would pray for Cole and pray for us and ask everybody else to pray,” Lindley explains. “As soon as I did that I had this peace come over me, which is very unlike me. I’m kind of a high anxiety person as it is, and so it was completely out of my character to feel so at peace without actually having news that he was OK. How else do you explain that? It’s the power of prayer. There’s no denying it, there’s just not. I’ve been very lucky, very blessed.”

Meanwhile, a friend who was attending a large church, Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens, encouraged Lindley to pay the place a visit. “I’d been driving by the place every week for the couple of years that I’d lived there. So I decided to go in.”

A few weeks later, for Christmas services, Matt came along. He too liked it and they have attended as a family ever since.

On the road, Lindley is not a regular at the weekly fellowship. She doesn’t want Matt to have to stay alone with the children while she goes off on her own. “It’s something where I want us to grow together and not separately,” she says. “But Cris is really great about keeping me abreast with the e-mails and whatever handouts she has used with the fellowship. She’s always great about including me. She’s given me many books over the years. I definitely pray a lot for others and for my family, that God would watch over my children.”

It’s one more way that Lindley keeps her world in perspective.

That world? It’s a fantasy, she says, hardly real at all.

“Sometimes I don’t know what the date is, just being in a different city every week, especially with children now,” Lindley reflects. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to find time to pick up the paper. I can see where people can become a little too wrapped up in their golf score, and think that they’re bigger than they really are. Does that make sense? Maybe they need a little touch of reality from where they came from. Being grounded can be difficult, maybe for some.”

Rarely has this been a problem for Lindley. Entering 2008, she had no reason to suspect that things would be different. Another year doing what she loves, sharing her experiences with her husband and her children. A check here, a check there. The closest she had ever come to winning was a playoff loss to Chris Johnson in a major, the 1997 LPGA Championship.

Eleven years later and nearly 300 starts into her career, Lindley made the trip to Corning, New York, for the Corning Classic. Her opening round was pedestrian, a one over-par 73. But she followed it with a 67 and then a 70 on Saturday to nestle into the second spot, a shot behind leader Jeong Jang.

On Sunday, Lindley’s play was stellar. She carded six birdies, three by tap-in. Set against only a single bogey at the fourth, she came home with her second 67 of the tournament. Her birdie at the seventeenth caught Jang, and when the round ended the two found themselves headed for a playoff.

“My goal the whole week was to be committed to my shot, even if it turned out to be the wrong club,” Lindley says. “If I wasn’t prepared or had doubt or I started to see bad shots in my mind, then I would back off and start again.”

Holding to this newly-forged philosophy in the playoff, Lindley hit a drive down the right side, then flagged a 7-iron while Jang found herself scrambling from a greenside bunker. But when Jang came out of the bunker to within inches of the hole, Lindley had to make her putt to win. She did.

“Birdying the first hole against J.J., who is a tremendous player, meant she didn’t give it to me. She fought hard and hit remarkable shots to put pressure on me. And yet I was able to step up and execute and birdie one of the toughest holes on the golf course against her to win. It made it special, rather than her making a bogey or a double bogey, so that I kind of fell into it. I earned it.”

In addition to the victory and the trophy and the $225,000 winner’s check, Lindley earned the accolades of her Tour cohorts.

“I think a little unexpected was the response I got from my fellow players and how excited many of them were for us,” she says, savoring the memory. “People would run across the parking lot to come over and congratulate both me and Matt. You tee it up each week and you’re trying to beat every single one of them, but just the genuine joy and excitement that they had for us—I was taken aback a little bit, in a good way.”

But now in victory, Lindley was still gaining perspective, still sorting priorities. After all, victory vanishes in a hurry.

“I had to laugh,” Lindley reflects. “For two or three days I was on the front page of the LPGA web site and then, BOOM!, you’re gone. I got a big kick out of that because here is the ultimate thing in my golf career and it was gone in no time.”

Which brings us all the way round to the big question: Why not number one? Aren’t the best players in the world supposed to set their aspirations on the highest goal? Certainly there are other players on Tour who have boldly made it known that the top ranking is what they’re after.

Lindley’s goal is more modest, based on the motto she says she has held to since the beginning: You can’t let your golf define you.

“I don’t know if having that mentality keeps you from being number one in the world,” she explains. “But I decided long ago that if it had to be otherwise, then I didn’t want to be number one in the world. That was a conscious decision.”

In the beginning, it was a decision about her own character. But as time has passed, it has been a decision for the good of her husband and family as well.

“There has to be a small degree of selfishness to what we do, but I didn’t want to be so selfish that my marriage would fail, or so selfish that I would be a terrible mother. So I think ultimately you have to analyze your life and what it is supposed to be for the time you’re here and then make that decision. It has always been my goal to compete at a high level but retain my dignity and my honor and be true to myself.”

In the end, this unlikely quest has made Lindley true to many others besides herself. Maybe it’s no wonder so many people delighted in her long-awaited win. When your life is in order, people line up to call you friend.

COPYRIGHT 2009 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Leta Lindley

    1 LPGA Tour Win: 2008 LPGA Corning Classic (pictured with husband and caddie, Matt Plagmann)