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Love of the game: Stephanie Sparks gets to say goodbye

Ginn Open-Second Round

REUNION, FLORIDA - APRIL 18: Stephanie Sparks from the Golf Channel plays a bunker shot on the seventh hole during the second round of the Ginn Open at Reunion Resort on April 18, 2008 in Reunion, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

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REUNION, Fla. — Fairytale endings are often reserved for the story books. The dénouement isn’t always what we want it to be. No matter how much we may want it. Sometimes, though, it’s the post script that proves most memorable, the one authored by a person’s reactions to real-life events.

For eight years, Stephanie Sparks had been absent from LPGA competition. Now, granted an opportunity to return, she wanted to play just two more days.

Knowing that she needed to shoot something in the red Friday at the Ginn Open, she stood at even par for the day, 3 over for the tournament, through 12 holes of her second round. One over was the target number, but a bogey at No. 13 and another at No. 15 ended any chance she had at making her goal of making the cut.

Trying to finish on a positive note, Sparks hit her approach shot to 6 inches on the par-5 17th and made birdie. She then reached the par-4 18th green in two, leaving her about 50 feet and two putts from an impressive, if not completely self-satisfying performance.

Her first putt finished 5 feet right of the hole. Her second putt lipped out and ran 5 feet past. Her third putt barely scared the hole. Her fourth putt finally fell.

A Disney ending this was not.

For the second straight day, Sparks made four birdies, eight pars, five bogeys and one double bogey, adding up to back-to-back 3-over-par 75s. She finished two rounds in a tie for 118th.

Immediately afterwards, she danced.

Upon finally getting her ball to fall on the home hole, Sparks did a little shimmy coming off the green, much to the delight of her fans which grew in number throughout the day. She issued a few hugs to her playing competitors over the two rounds, Sophie Giquel and Jimin Jeong, and then went off to sign her scorecard as a small legion cheered her on.

This was a very important moment in her life and she wasn’t going to let it be remembered, by her or by anyone else in witness, as dour.

“This was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she said. “The feelings and emotions were pretty powerful.”

There wasn’t a throng of reporters to greet her after she exited the scorer’s tent. Just a local TV reporter who asked her some feel-good questions. And one writer, a friend, who made her cry — twice.

“Walking down 18, I just took it all in,” she said. “I did a lot of looking around, a lot of being in the moment. To be honest, I knew I couldn’t make the cut so I wanted to enjoy the moment because I thought, this might be it.”

“Do you think you’ll play again,” the writer asked, “even if it’s just one more time on a sponsor’s exemption?”

For two days, Stephanie Sparks had experienced an array of emotions. There were smiles and fist pumps, gritted teeth and clubs thumped against the ground. And she loved every minute of it. The thought of never being able to experience those feelings again, the ones unique to professional competition, was a little overwhelming.

“You’re going to make me cry,” she said. And then she walked away to shed a few tears in private.

Did he make you cry?, a fan waiting for an autograph asked Sparks as she returned. Kick him in the knee!

Sparks laughed and told the writer, “At least I had the opportunity to miss one more cut.”

In 2000, Sparks’ lone season on the LPGA, she played 21 tournaments and missed 20 cuts. She tied for 69th at the Electrolux USA Championship for a cool $997.

“If money wasn’t an issue, I’d love to play golf for a living. Standing in the ninth fairway (her 18th hole in Round 1), I told my caddie, ‘This is the greatest job ever,’” she said.

“But, I like the comfort of knowing I’m getting a guaranteed paycheck every two weeks.”

Two back surgeries forced Sparks into early retirement. She then landed a gig as a producer at Golf Channel, which later led to some on-air opportunities for shows such as “Big Break” and “Golf With Style!”.

At the beginning of 2008, she received a phone call from Bobby Ginn asking her if she wanted a sponsor’s exemption into his tournament. She gladly accepted and spent three months preparing for this one week. She trained at the Annika Academy, housed at Reunion, under the eye of Annika Sorenstam’s swing coach, Henri Reis. She also worked out with personal trainer and sports nutritionist Kai Fusser.

Fusser worked on strengthening her core while Reis tried to help her obtain a repeatable swing that wouldn’t put too much strain on her back.

Both were successful; though, Reis couldn’t convince Sparks to upgrade her equipment.

Using the same clubs she has for more than a decade — Callaway Biggest Big Bertha driver (and not the one with the super-sized head), Callaway Steelhead irons, Titleist wedges, and a Scotty Cameron Newport Two putter — Sparks set off to tackle a course she had played in preparation too many times to remember.

But, as she said after Thursday’s round, “It was an entirely different course from when I practiced on it.”

After opening in 75 on the slick greens and rolling mounds of Reunion, Sparks returned for her 7:15 a.m. tee time Friday — the first group out. Living about a half-hour away from the course, she didn’t get out of bed until 5.

“Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not a morning person. I have a philosophy that I never set my alarm for any time that starts with a 4,” she said.

After hitting balls in the pitch black, she made her way to the first hole to play Round 2 proper. Thursday, while teeing off on the 10th hole at 1:05 p.m., she had a following of 25 or so friends. This time, barely past 7 in the morning, she had 6 — and the writer.

After parring her first six holes she bogeyed Nos. 7 and 8 to fall to 5 over. She responded, however, with a 15-foot, downhill birdie putt on No. 9, which she read perfectly and barely had to tap to get it moving, and another birdie at No. 10 from 4 feet. She was back to even par for the day, at 3 over total, and back in contention to play on the weekend.

“There was only one thing on my mind today,” she said, “making the cut.”

A poor drive at the par-4 11th led to her taking an unplayable lie and a bogey. She got it right back by making another 15-footer for birdie at No. 12. But bogeys on 13th and 15th holes sealed her fate, the latter the result of a shot she thought had finished on the green but one that ran through into the rough.

While her first round was filled with smiles and pleasantries exchanged between her and her following, Round 2 was admittedly more intense. There were a few more vocal outbursts on this day, a few more clubs forcefully removed from and stuck into her bag. She was being competitive, what she calls, the greatest feeling.

After a good drive and a solid lay-up shot on the par-5 17th, Sparks hit the best shot by anyone in her group over the course of two days, an approach to half-foot. She tapped in for birdie and looked to wrap everything up with a nice, tidy par at the last. But 18 was a bit of a mess.

“I think my mind had checked out by the time I got to the green,” she said. “I was just trying to soak it all in and lost my focus.”

“I should have made the cut,” she lamented. “I just made a couple of stupid mistakes.”

The way in which she finished mattered little to her friends, a number which steadily increased throughout the day. After her little dance off of 18, they applauded as if she was leading the tournament.

“How much did that support mean to you these two days,” the writer asked Stephanie.

“You’re going to make me cry again,” she said. And she did.

“I had a lot of support. Whether it was friends or people who knew me from TV or volunteers, everyone was so kind and cheered me on. That means the world to me,” she said.

One of those friends was her caddie, Arron Crewes, who attended Duke University with Sparks, and flew down from his home in Akron, Ohio, to be on her bag.

“She played great,” he said. “For someone who hadn’t played on tour in eight years, I think she did very well for herself.”

After a prestigious amateur career, which included an All-America stint at Duke; a Western Women’s Amateur championship; an Eastern Women’s Amateur championship; the North and South Amateur Championship; and one full trip around the LPGA, Stephanie Sparks’ competitive career may have come to an end Friday at Reunion.

Then again ...

“Who knows? Maybe I will get another sponsor’s exemption, another event like this,” she said. “I’m definitely addicted to the feeling of competing and playing. To be able to do that one more time would certainly be a dream.”

But if this is the end, she’s OK with that, too: “This time, I felt like I had the opportunity to say goodbye. I didn’t get that before.”