Home away from home

Sunday, April 25, 2004

You can tell by the look in Karen Stupples' eye that her heart still rests in Dover, England, where she was born and where her mother and father live.

But since becoming the touring professional for Dalhousie Country Club in March of 2002, Stupples has grown fond of Cape Girardeau.

"It's a good community where everyone sticks together," Stupples says. "It reminds me of my hometown."

Stupples now has a home in Orlando, Fla. -- she is a golfer after all -- but when she is in the United States, she is almost as likely to be spending her nights here as there.

Stupples, who spends about seven weeks per year in England and about 25 or more weeks on the LPGA tour, also spends five weeks a year in Cape Girardeau. So how often is she home in Orlando? "Not very much."

"Orlando is very different," Stupples said. "It's where my home is. But in terms of family feeling and community feeling, this works better for me."

So much so that she told the Rotary Club of Cape Girardeau on Thursday: "My deal in Cape is more than just a financial arrangement," and added that she might be interested in one of the "nice little cottages" planned for Dalhousie.

She has been in town the last seven days, as the LPGA takes a weekend off while moving from the West Coast to the East Coast. The visit was her first since February and her first as an LPGA tournament champion.

Her win at the LPGA-season-opening Welch's/Fry's Championship on March 14 hasn't caused autograph seekers to stop her on the streets of Cape Girardeau -- "I haven't had that here yet," Stupples said -- but it has brought a special joy to the people here who know her best.

"We've known her for three or four years now," said Jennifer Coad, "and to watch her improve every year has been neat."

Jennifer Coad and her husband, Tim, of Coad Chevrolet, were introduced to Karen Stupples in 2001 at the LPGA's Michelob Light Classic near St. Louis. Jennifer played in the pro-am as part of a team sponsored by GMAC. The amateurs were paired with an up-and-coming Karen Stupples, whose husband was her caddy.

"When were told we were paired with Karen Stupples, we were like 'Who's that?'" Jennifer Coad said.

"They didn't have very much. They didn't have a car, they didn't have a house. They were probably down to not too much money."

But the Coads hit it off with the Stuppleses. They dined together after the pro-am and kept in touch via e-mail. Eventually, the Coads' involvement with Dalhousie led to the sponsorship deal with Stupples.

Thus, the small club in Cape Girardeau has a player, now considered one of the best on the women's tour, wearing its hat on the LPGA tour.

And Stupples, off to her best start since turning professional in 1999, has a home away from home.

Her best year yet

Stupples arrived in Cape Girardeau last Sunday night, fresh off an eighth-place finish in the Takefuji Classic in Las Vegas that netted her $25,234. It was her best finish since the record-setting breakthrough in the Welch's/Fry's Championship. That triumph, posted with the best 72-hole relation-to-par score in tour history at 22-under, brought Stupples a check for $120,000.

In addition, Stupples has been able to enjoy a couple of perks -- membership on the European tour, which also will allow her to play some tournaments closer to her parents, and an entry in November's LPGA Tournament of Champions.

"I get a lot more fan mail now, so I have to spend more time with that," Stupples said. "I get more people who want to interview me. I get more interest from England."

And there's the money. Before this year, Stupples' previous best single tour check was $61,647 from a fourth-place finish last year.

She topped that in February in Australia with a second-place finish behind Annika Sorenstam in the ANZ Masters. Stupples earned $79,200 for the effort. With a string of LPGA checks since, she stands sixth on the tour's money list and has made more money this season ($270,537) than any year except 2003. And it's only April.

But like a true Midwestern girl, Stupples has not let money affect her.

"I can do things for my family now," Stupples said. "I gave my sister some money. I helped my mom and dad redo their bathroom."

As for splurging on herself, she points to a necklace, a classy stone that probably wouldn't fall into the category of bling-bling.

Stupples can recount years of work to get to this point. Leaving England for Arkansas State, transferring to Florida State, LPGA Qualifying School, years on the tour when she missed nearly as many cuts as she made, and years when she didn't have much to show for her efforts.

"At last, I feel like I'm doing the right thing now," Stupples said.

Her success is no surprise to anyone who saw her in February, when she came to town to kick off Dalhousie's junior golf program. She looked anxious to hit the tee box.

"I think it was because I had just had a good month at home with my family," Stupples said. "I really enjoyed it, and I wasn't stressed when I started to get ready for this year. I was ready to roll the second week after I came back. Everything was going well -- my chipping, my bunker shots. ...

"And I had a brainwave with my putting. I decided to trust my line no matter what. I just had to accept that it was going to go in or not, and there was nothing I could do about it. All I could do was trust my line. It's made a huge difference.

"I've gained some distance as well. I'm 5-foot-5 in my shoes and I hit the ball as long as anyone now because of working out."

Stupples is tied for third on the tour in driving distance at 280.6 yards. She is eighth on the tour in birdies, seventh in greens in regulation and seventh in scoring. It all adds up to sixth on the money list and fourth in player of the year standings.

"I'm enjoying playing and I enjoy the challenge," Stupples said. "The way I feel now, I feel any tournament I enter, I have an opportunity to win, and when your confidence is high, it's all good fun."

A busy week

Fun described most of her week in Cape Girardeau. But at the one-quarter mark of the season and with four tournaments in four weeks ahead, she had to find the right balance of relaxation and keeping up her game.

"This is one of the few times I've been here in the middle of the season," Stupples said, "but now the practice facilities are starting to come on line."

She hit the course at Dalhousie often, practicing and working on short-game situations. In her capacity as an adviser for the club, she checked out construction projects and tee box locations that are in the works.

She made a couple of visits to the Main Street Family Fitness Center in Jackson for workouts, mixing cardio work with iso work to maintain the upper body strength essential for driving distance.

After dining Tuesday night with members of Dalhousie's ladies association, she played golf Wednesday morning with three different groups in Dalhousie's ladies league.

"It was an absolute thrill to play with her and talk with her one on one," said Dalhousie member Kay Tolliver. "Playing with someone like Karen could be so intimidating, but she made us feel so at ease. She encouraged us and told us to enjoy the sport no matter what you're scoring."

Stupples offered some tips for the players. She said one goal for her return trip in August is "a proper ladies clinic" to offer instruction and encouragement.

She visited the Rotary Club on Thursday and talked about her career, her appreciation of Cape Girardeau and her relationship with Dalhousie. She told Rotary members Dalhousie is a worthy course for hosting an LPGA event, once the facilities are completed and if sponsorship and a slot on the schedule could fall in line.

Dr. John Koch, of the Cape Small Animal Clinic, presented Stupples at the meeting. Koch, a Dalhousie member, expressed admiration for the player.

"She's an outstanding golfer; just as consistent as can be," Koch said. "Most golfers try to emulate the things the pros do and to have the opportunity to mingle with someone like Karen is a tremendous opportunity."

It was back to the gym on Friday for Stupples and off to an event at Dalhousie Downtown that night. She had sent the club the trophy and the oversized non-negotiable check following her win in Tucson. The items are on display in the Karen Stupples Room.

Stupples planned to play golf with Cord Dombrowski, Dalhousie's managing member, on Saturday.

"In a normal off week, I'd probably be off doing my own thing," Stupples said. "In Orlando, I probably wouldn't do anything the first half of the week.

"I still have obligations here. I'm asked to do things for the club and I enjoy that, too. I enjoy meeting the ladies and meeting new people. I'm a bit of a chatty person and it's great fun for me."

She goes back to work today, leaving for Stockbridge, Ga., near Atlanta, site of the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship.

Back to work

With four tournaments in four weeks, Stupples considers the next 28 days work. Sure, the pressure-packed golf is crammed into just four or five hours over four days, but she also must concentrate during practice rounds, be gregarious during pro-ams and try not to fret over travel arrangements.

When one tournament ends, she begins the transition process -- packing, traveling and unpacking -- for the next. She may see the course on Monday night and check out the greens. Tuesday is practice day, Wednesday is the pro-am and Thursday is game time.

Her father will join her this week in Georgia.

"I miss my family," she said. "I'm in contact with them a lot with e-mail and technology."

Stupples called home following her win in Tucson and "they had already popped the champagne," she said.

A little later that night, she called Jennifer Coad, who also already saw the outcome.

"It was so exciting," Coad said. "It was one of those things where we expected a win for a long time, but still when it happened it was very emotional. We watched her getting the championship trophy and her reaction, and it was very exciting and very emotional for us."

Tempting as it might be now that the LPGA victory allowed Stupples to join the European tour, she plans to play just the minimum six to eight events over two years there.

"That'll be fine for me," she said. "I'm making my life in America, and I'd like my to get my family to see me here."

She would like to play for the European team in the Solheim Cup, an international match-play event similar to the Ryder Cup. The next confrontation between the U.S. and the Europeans is set for September of 2005 at Crooked Stick in Indiana.

"My main goal is to be a captain's pick," she said.

She said at the Rotary Club meeting that her current agreement with Dalhousie runs through the end of that 2005 season.

But regardless of her future arrangements with Dalhousie, her ties with Cape Girardeau will last much longer.

"This feels like home for her," Coad said. "There are a lot of people here who know her here and are friends with her. When she comes to Cape, it's almost like coming home.

"We said going in that we would be glad to help with the business side and help people get acquainted, but first and foremost she was our friend; and friends are friends for life."

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