Second to None: Profile of golf star Lorie Kane

2nd to None:
The war an athlete wages against the fear of success can be an eternal one:
Just ask Lorie Kane

·    By Margaret Webb
Saturday Night, Aug 4, 2001

·    This is confidence: Like a blast of wind, the number one female golfer in the world – at least for 12 sizzling weeks last fall – finishes a practice round of golf and strides into the media room of the posh Corning Country Club, wearing a grey t-shirt that is drenched in sweat. She drops “how ya doin’s” to tournament volunteers like they were old friends back home in Charlottetown, PEI — without breaking stride. She is on a mission to find me and nail an interview so that she can get back to her real work, which is preparing for the Corning Classic in two days and the US Open the next week. Before I can introduce myself, the golfer’s handshake comes at me from half way across the room: “Hi,” she says, “I’m Lorie Kane.”

·    No pretension, no attitude, no fancy golf shirt. Just that mega smile.

·    This is nerves: About a half hour later, Kane, 36, dressed casually as usual in jeans, t-shirt, grey pull-over sweater, steps off the elevator in her hotel. She lingers by the doors, scanning the near-empty lobby, searching for me and looking, against all adds, nervous. In an earlier interview, just a few days before, she had chatted on phone about the kind of things one normally confesses to a good friend or a therapist. “When I’m confident, I move forward and when I’m not, I don’t. That goes back to school days, learning to drive, I didn’t even try for my license until I was 18 or 19, or going to university, I waited for a year and then went on. Even going to parties and on the tour, it was the same thing.”

·    Now, she directs me to a table in the hotel bar, far in the back corner. While she orders a beer, I relay a story her mother, Marilyn, had told me: that Kane didn’t start talking until she was two, then started speaking in complete sentences. “And I haven’t shut up since,” Kane says, laughing now. The waiter returns with the beer — a Michelob Lite – which Kane drinks straight from the bottle. “I am who I am,” she says and, finally, the person I had met in the tournament media room reappears, the Lorie Kane who is possibly the most outgoing golfer on the planet. She tells me that she’s just returned from St. Louis, from the Fox Run Golf Club, site of her first victory on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, last year’s Michelob Light Classic. She had been there doing promotional work as a defending champion. “When I won the Michelob, I told the sponsors it was time a beer drinker won their tournament.”

·    Actually, Kane could have said it was time she won, period. That momentous victory last August was her first since joining the tour in 1996. After that, says Kane, her confidence level “went boom.” That phrase is pure understatement. Over the next 12-tournaments, Kane won three more times and posted seven top-ten finishes. Yet, since her last win in February, she’s been struggling, with just two top-ten finishes in six starts. That’s because, she says, she has set a new goal. “I know where I’ve been and how far I’ve come and I can taste it. I want to be number one. That’s the ultimate.”

·    But her new goal, as always, is putting her up against a very old problem.

·    *

·    The question started dogging Kane in 1997, her first full year on the LPGA tour. Three years later, after she had made nearly $2 million, cracked the top ten 34 times and finished second in nine tournaments, the question had become the stuff of headlines.

·    When would Lorie Kane win?

·    In 2000, had she put Y2K on her license plate, players on the tour might guess it stood for “Why Second, Kane?” Her high school basketball coach, Dave McNeil, whom she still consults on the mental side of her game, had the answer. She would win, he said, “When the pain of coming second becomes greater than the pain of coming first.”

·    That cryptic insight was easy enough to ignore, because, at first, the seconds were easy enough to take. Kane did not turn pro until she was 29, having spent her twenties playing amateur events and teaching golf, and was thirty-one during her first full season on the LPGA tour. She had no idea how she would stack up against rookies nearly a decade younger — not to mention the game’s two superstars, Karrie Webb, then 23, and Annika Sorenstam, then 27. Though a champion on a Canadian pro tour, Kane had never played golf year-round before. Her goal that first year was simply to get experience. Get better. See where she stood. And she stood on the brink of victory four times. Two of her four seconds in 1997 came in sudden-death playoffs. She won $425,964, 11th on the money list, a best-yet for any female Canadian golfer and close to spectacular for a newcomer to the tour. She was named Canada’s female athlete of the year. With her ready smile and laid-back Islander attitude, she became a favourite of fans, players and the media. Players voted her the Heather Farr Player Award, a kind of Miss Congeniality award.

·    But she did not win.

·    Over the next three years, Kane became a consistent top performer, reaching number five on the money list in 1999, the only player without a winner’s cheque to crack the top ten that year. She led the LPGA in most rounds under par for two years running. She lowered her scoring average every year and shot a personal best of 64. She established her reputation as an iron woman, playing 30 or more tournaments a year, more than any other player and her classic swing — a thing of rhythm, of control, of uncanny ease, and of beauty – caught everyone’s attention. Hall of Famer Pat Bradley told Kane it was as good, maybe even better than the legendary Mickey Wright’s, thought to have had the best swing, ever.

·    Kane even performed off the course as well. In contrast to the shy Sorenstam and the petulant Webb, Kane finessed her charisma by studying the master, Nancy Lopez, and constantly asking herself, “Would Nancy do this?” Kane entertained fans, schmoozed with corporate sponsors, wore the Canadian flag on her sleeve to popularize the women’s game back home. When Si Ri Pak was crushed by the Korean media after her sensational rookie year, Kane extended a shoulder. (“I’m somewhat of a big sister to her,” Kane says.) Her father, Jack, was proudest of another moment: When Kane spotted a mentally challenged boy at one tournament, she offered him a golf ball. The kid didn’t know who Kane was, but he did by the end of the tournament – she looked for him every day and said “Hi.” Lopez has a simple definition for charisma: caring. “Lorie is someone who cares,” she says. “People like that.” Veteran Betsy King, 33 times a winner on the LPGA, said that if you put the attributes of a superstar on a chalkboard, Kane would be it.

·    She made herself consistent, durable, impressive, popular. She even shot a hole in one.

·    But she did not win.

·    Kane’s mother, Marilyn, has a way of summing things up: “The first couple of seconds were thrilling. The next few were exciting. The fifth was nice. The sixth was for shit.”

·    But there would be three more seconds, two of those in heart-breaking sudden-death losses. Kane edged to the precipice of tying Laura Bough’s record of ten seconds without a win. Finishing, as Dave MacNeill had predicted, was becoming very painful indeed.

·    The media turned on the likes-to-be-liked Kane, now questioning whether she was too nice to win. Whether her “Girl Scout-like compulsion to help/please/cheer” was keeping her off the top of the leader board. Whether she lacked the stuff, the grit, the will. By last year, her image had morphed from up-and-comer to classiest runner-up in professional sports, a bridesmaid, a choker, and — the one that still irks Kane — a “loveable loser.” Letters poured in from sports psychologists and golf coaches offering help.

·    Kane admits she started listening to the naysayers – that to win she had to be more aggressive, more intense, more focussed. She played worse. Finally, when other players started apologizing for beating her, Kane had had enough.

·    She called a time out, went home to PEI for a week. There, she says, she changed her thinking. Then she came back and won. And won again. She had figured it out. The question was: How? And more critically, as she chases after the top spot on the LPGA tour, can she figure it out again?

·    *

·    In the hotel bar, Lorie Kane reminisces about that first victory in St. Louis. “I can’t really put into words what the feeling of winning was,” she says, but as she recalls it, her wholesome east-coast Scots complexion actually glows.

·    I ask her to walk me through that first win and, as if on cue, her co-strategist for that pivotal tournament, the man she credits with being a key part of her success, caddy Danny Sharp, enters the bar. Sharp dropped into Kane’s life at a similarly opportune moment in 1995. Growing up a golf junkie in Hamilton, ON, he studied Canadian masters Moe Norman and George Knudson and was aiming for a career in the PGA himself until his dreams ended in a car accident. While recovering in Florida, where he now lives with his wife and two children, he saw Kane play and saw “a classic beautiful swing and sound fundamentals” but a weak short game. Kane, who thrived on team sports as a kid, saw in Sharp someone who could be instructor, coach, co-strategist, her “director of golf operations” as she calls him. A teammateinthe loneliest of sports.She hustled up her first sponsor herself so that she could hire Sharp full time. She’s taken flak for relying on him too much, but utilizing Sharp’s experience and elevating the role of caddy to coach and teammate is surely brilliance. Since the two joined forces, Kane’s scoring average has improved an astonishing four and a half strokes, from 75 to a best of 70.62, just a stroke and a shade off Webb’s record best of 69.43.

·    Paradoxically, it was Kane’s rapid improvement under MacNeill’s tutelage that put her up against her final hurdle. As Dave MacNeill puts it, “When she started to have those seconds, it became obvious that she had a fear of success. Winning was going to put her out in front. Prior to that she could hide in the pack.” McNeil had Kane manage her fear by focussing on lowering her stroke average and never talking about winning.

·    But Sharp believes Kane reached a point where the strategy had to change. It had put her into contention nearly every tournament but did not help her win: “What happens when eight or nine chances a year get away and she’s not winning? What happens when you reach a limit (to lowering your stroke average)? Julie Inkster (among countless others) has a higher stroke average and she wins majors and tournaments. Why not win? You have to think about winning, embrace it, talk about it. When she got in the position (to win), no one had helped her think about winning before.”

·    Heading into Fox Run, Kane says she decided to face her fears head on. Not quite a year later, talking about that first win still makes Sharp and Kane giddy with delight. They trade describing the struggle.

·    Early in the tournament, Kane says, the attention was where she wanted it, on tour stars Sorenstam and Webb. The TV cameras only shift to Kane after she followed a first-round 68 with a scorching 66, which put her in the lead by two strokes heading into he third and final round. Traditionally a come-from-behind challenger, Kane had gone taken into an LPGA tournament’s last round with a lead.

·    Still, she thought she was prepared: “The night before, I visualized the whole course. I have a great memory for golf courses. I played my way through each hole, each shot. Then, driving to the golf course, Danny and I talked strategy, to pump up the adrenaline and get focussed.”

·    “But Lorie clammed up,” says Sharp, “I know there was something wrong. She was thinking. And we’re playing with Rosie Jones, who’s intimidating. She and Dottie (Pepper) tick players off. They don’t have as much talent, but they win by throwing off your thinking by one percent. They’re standing too close when you line up your putt or they’re getting in your way. They beat players by distracting them and they thrive on it”

·    Which was exactly what Kane did not need. Particularly not on top of a one-hour rain delay before the start of that final round. The delay gave everyone a good long time to talk about whether Kane will triumph, or choke again. And it gave Kane’s nerves a good long time to fester.

·    “I wasn’t comfortable through the first nine holes,” says Kane. “I was fighting things. I can remember standing on the second green after I bogeyed the hole and I turned to Danny and told him I felt like I was going to throw up. He just laughed and said, ‘how do you like your job now?’”

·    *

·    Some background on the nature of stress in golf. In 1457, the game was briefly banned in Scotland because authorities saw it as a threat to the practice of archery, deemed necessary for national defense. The point is that real warriors do not play golf; weekend warriors do. In our traditional understanding of the game, a player is not required to mount a physical defense. A golfer faces no tackles, no body checks, no knockout punches to the head. Golf’s hazards are things like bubbling brooks, shallow holes filled with firm sand, ankle-high grass.

·    And yet golfers feel stress. Emotional stress. Mental stress. Sometimes extreme stress, which manifests itself physically: trembling hands, sweaty palms, racing heart, rigid muscles. Says sports psychologist Peter Jensen, “If you wanted to create a laboratory to study people under pressure, golf would be it.”

·    When a winner’s cheque or an athlete’s pride depends on executing a shot, often a putt, the body may respond as if one were facing physical attack, argues Michael Clarkson, who writes on stress and athletic performance in his book Competitive Fire. The body, he says, pumps out an arsenal of hormones – adrenaline and dopamine — which constrict air passages to conserve oxygen, tense muscles to produce strength, trigger the brain to think aggressively, speed the heart to deliver oxygen – all to ready the body to fight or to flee.

·    But, remember, this is a putt we’re talking about. This is about hitting a very small ball a very short distance over a very smooth surface. Releasing a flood of fight hormones is, in this moment, pure overkill, especially given that both a putting stroke and a golf swing are best performed in a state of relaxation. It throws relief on one of Kane’s more perplexing quotes: “I can be a sketchy putter, but I’m a good putter.”

·    A successful athlete, especially a successful golfer, says Clarkson, can summon up more civilized hormones, like DHEA and serontonin, which produce energy yet also a happy, blissful state of relaxation, better suited to a golf swing. Talking positively, thinking positively – especially about one’s self and one’s game — stimulates these bliss hormones. Truly great golfers can marshal both bliss and fight hormones into, say, a relaxed yet powerful drive off the tee.

·    From my earlier conversations with Kane’s parents, it was apparent Lorie had inherited rocket-fuel levels of both fight and bliss hormones from them. Father Jack is a former hockey and football coach. At age 25, he learned to play golf well enough to become club pro at Brundenell River Resort, one of PEI’s jewel courses. The four Kane daughters – Mary Lynn, 38, Lorie, Allison, 33, and Jackie, 29 – call him “the coach.” When Lorie was five, he cut down a set of irons and taught her the fundamentals – “the perfect grip, the perfect stance,” says Lorie – of what has become one of the sweetest swings on the tour. But when she started competing in junior tournaments, Jack could “get very vocal,” according to his wife, Marilyn, “to get out there and hit about 120,000 balls a day.” Intense? He gave quotes in coach speak: “Did I tell her to work harder? Sure I did. Did I tell her she had to practice more? Sure I did. Did I tell her she had talent? Sure I did.” Marilyn says Lorie got her “competitive edge” from her dad.

·    Yet, on hearing this, Jack delighted in pointing out that Kane’s mom was “no shrinking violet.” Once a competitive gymnast, Marilyn is now one of PEI’s top realtors. “I like to keep my numbers up there,” she admits. But the Kane daughters call Mom “the social butterfly.” She still works the phone every morning at breakfast, taking calls from her adult daughters and putting her bright spin on their news. She “taught us to expect the best for yourself, to make sure you’re happy and comfortable,” says Lorie, confessing that she learned that lesson well, once switching hotel rooms four times before she had one to her liking.

·    Kane, it seems, managed to channel her inheritance of rocket fuel into becoming her high school’s top athlete, a basketball star and an island amateur golf champ nine years running. Indeed, according to basketball teammate and sister Mary Lynn, Kane performed better then under game pressure: “I remember having to give her a smack in the ass to pick it up in practice…but she would shine in a game…I laugh at people’s comments that she’s always smiling and not fierce enough. They haven’t gotten an elbow from her under the net.” And Sharp has called Kane’s demeanor “perfect” for golf: “She’s strong, determined (yet) she’s got that laid-back attitude.”

·    So what upset her balance? According to Clarkson, an athlete’s bodily reaction to high stress may very well be hardwired to some traumatic event in childhood. That is, how a child deals with stress can condition the adult body to react similarly in similar situations. Kane knows this intuitively. In our first interview, she said this about her string of nine seconds: “It went back to my first days at school. I tried very hard, but school just didn’t come very easy. It took me a long time to read a book. The teacher would ask a question and I couldn’t answer because I was so scared. I wanted to be the best and I didn’t want anyone to think differently. I found that if I didn’t rush forward, I could be in the background and no one would know I didn’t have the answer.”

·    Marilyn believes Lorie suffered mild dyslexia that went undiagnosed. Kane repeated grade six. With tutoring from big sister Mary Lynn, who is now a lawyer, and by focussing on her other strengths – athletic talent, incredible social and communication skills – Kane thrived. She eventually went to university.

·    Yet, the vulnerability was still there. When Kane decided to turn pro, the person she went to for support was MacNeill, her former high school basketball coach, now executive director of Sports PEI. He had once told her that she was not a slow learner but a strong learner, a thorough learner. “I would have liked to have had Dave in my life when I was a little girl,” Kane said. “I would have liked do things with a little more ease. Dave said, it takes you a long time because you want to absorb everything and you don’t move forward until you get it all.”

·    When Kane took time off and went home to prepare for the Michelob, she realized that she had stopped putting MacNeill’s — and her own — positive spin on things. Since joining the LPGA, she had started questioning herself: “Did I have the skills to win? I had such a respect for people around me that I…hung back.” Then, when the media started questioning whether she could win, she says she “kind of lost if for awhile. I thought there must be a problem. And I started questioning myself.

·    At ome in Charlottetown, she stumbled across an interview with Mark Messier. “He talked about winning being an attitude,” she says, and it clicked.

·    *

·    And so a year later, cozy over a beer in a bar, Kane recalls standing on the third tee in the most important game of her life, a first win within her grasp, feeling sick to her stomach from an overkill release of fight hormones. “Being out in front, with people expecting her to win,” she says, “is just the same as sitting in math class, when the teacher asks you a question and expects you to know the answer.” But Kane now had a strategy: “I kept reminding myself that I had a winning attitude, that I can win.”

·    Danny Sharp, too, had a strategy: “I told Lorie to go talk to Rosie (Jones). I told her to go say hi to every marshal and thank them for volunteering. Lorie needs to talk to people to take her mind off her worries or the excitement. If she spends time making people feel good, she feels good. Rosie would try to get away by walking down the left side of the fairway but Lorie walked right with her.”

·    Kane battled her nerves through the front nine, holding on to play par golf, then at the turn to ten, she says, she had a “chat” with herself: “I said, this is mine and you’re not taking this away from me.” The “you” in this case wasn’t Karrie Webb, who was mounting a late charge to catch Kane, the real competition was inside Kane, between Kane in grade school and Kane the golf star. “I remember the save I made on 11. I had a difficult lie. I said, I’m going to get this down.”

·    She took a breath and chipped out of the rough, to within four feet of the hole. Then she made the par putt.

·    And then it finally kicked in. Not the old fear. The bliss. A relaxed and smiling Kane birdied the next two holes. Webb bogeyed out of contention trying to catch Kane. Jones gave up trying to get away from her. And Kane, who put the talk back in stalk, even started chatting to the TV cameras. The announcers raved about her calm.

·    “I remember coming up to 18,” says Kane. “People started clapping on the tee and they didn’t stop until my putt when in.”

·    As they strolled up the fairway, Danny told Kane that Baugh’s record of ten seconds without a win was safe. Then he slid his sunglasses on to hide his tears. An emotional Kane bogeyed the final hole, but it didn’t matter. She won by three strokes.

·    Several players, anticipating Kane’s first win, changed travel plans to stay and celebrate. Fittingly, they cracked open beers to spray the tour’s newest champion. “That meant a lot to me,” says Kane, “that they wanted to stay.”

·    They not only stayed to party, but they vote Kane the Powel Award for 2000, a sort of Ms Congeniality plus performance award. Canada makes her female athlete of the year, again. And Golf World declares her breakthrough LPGA’s “feel-good story of 2000.”

·    Feel good, indeed. “I was surprised when Danny told me that strategy (of talking),” says Kane, “but that’s my personality…I can’t put the blinders on. I tried and it’s just not who I am. I’m an entertainer and I need to allow people into my world somehow.”

·    It’s one of her strengths. It makes her feel good. She focussed on that. And she won.

·    “Improving the physical part of your game can take weeks and years,” says Sharp. “But changing your thinking can change things just like that.”

·    *

·    One of the great challenges of golf is to repeat the thing that brings success, the same winning swing, the same winning attitude. After Michelob, Kane started doing what everyone had doubted: winning, winning in sudden-death, breaking new course scoring records. As for Kane’s goal of becoming the number one player on tour, more than a few players like her chances. “I told her, she’s got a lot of win in that heart of hers,” says Lopez, now Kane’s practice partner. Says Hall of Famer Julie Inkster: “She can go as far as she wants. She got the game to be number one.”

·    But, the question remains, does Kane believe it? At Corning, it turns out, she plays well but she struggles to stay positive when the breaks go against her. There’s a lot of fight with her putter and not much bliss. She misses the cut. At the US Open a week later, she commits three double bogeys – errors of frustration, mental lapses – and finishes seventh. (Take away those three strokes and she finishes second in the tour’s marquis event.) Two weeks later, at the ShopRite Classic in Absecon, New Jersey, she plays superbly yet, yes, finishes second.

·    Maybe the hurt sixth grader never really goes away. Maybe the golf star has to keep finding new ways to stay positive, to get better.

·    “Golf tests you every day,” says Kane. “When you’re down or there’s pressure, you have to go down and find that place in yourself, that calm. Golf makes you bring out the best in yourself.”

·    And this, says Lorie Kane, is what she loves about the game.