Where are they now: Beth Bauer

Beth Bauer at her home in Odessa, Fla.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part, where-are-they-now series chronicling the careers of Beth Bauer, May Wood and Catherine Cartwright.

• • •

The fan mail keeps coming.

Can’t wait for you to get back out there, the letters implore.

“It’s been five years since I’ve played,” says a humbled and surprised Beth Bauer Grace, who once dominated all levels of the game. Now married, Beth Bauer met Andy Grace on her 28th birthday in March 2008 while driving a beverage cart at Heritage Harbor Golf and Country Club near her home in Odessa, Fla. The former Duke University All-American graduated in June with a degree in elementary education from the University of Phoenix’s online program. She postponed a full-time teaching position so that she could furniture shop at Babies “R” Us, fill the nursery shelves with used children’s books and put forth her best Martha Stewart impression – all in preparation for baby Courtney Lee, who arrived Dec. 20.

The 31-year-old mom positively glows.

Countless young women disappear from competitive golf each year, but Bauer falls into a special category of can’t-miss prospects. Imagine what the LPGA’s marketing strategy would look like if a beauty such as Bauer, the 2002 LPGA Rookie of the Year, stood alongside twentysomethings Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis and teen Lexi Thompson as American stalwarts for years to come. Not to mention a couple of other leggy blondes – May Wood and Catherine Cartwright – who, like Bauer, retired from golf well before age 30.

This is a story about starting over. Digging deep into the whatever-happened-to file to chronicle the lives of three American starlets who left golf to return to school in their 20s, find love and dream new dreams.

“I’ve been competing since I was 8, traveling since I was 13,” Bauer said. “You get to 25, and you’ve been doing it half your life. At some point, you’re going to wake up and you’re 35, and still alone, still traveling. What else do you want out of life?”

It’s a question many elite juniors are afraid to ask. Groomed from an early age for the bright lights of professional sport, most find it terrifying to imagine a life in which golf didn’t work out. Bauer, Wood and Cartwright wouldn’t say the transition back to a “normal” life has been easy. But each has found happiness, and it took no small amount of courage to get there.

• • •

Beth Bauer hit the first tee shot at the 2000 Curtis Cup at Ganton Golf Club in England. Teammate Angela Stanford remembers this fact because it made a big impression.

“She just striped it,” Stanford said. “I thought, I hope I can do that someday, that I can stand on a tee and intimidate an entire field.”

It wasn’t that Bauer, winner of 17 AJGA titles, was particularly fierce. Players point to her maturity and the unshakable rhythm she displayed on the golf course as keys to her success. So smooth and simple. Stanford used to think she could throw something at Bauer midswing and it wouldn’t affect her.

Bauer learned the game from her father, John, a teaching pro who died from Guillain-Barre syndrome – a rare disease that attacks the nervous system – when Beth was 14. Her mother, Chris, gave everything she had to advance Beth’s golf career, and the two shared a deeply emotional moment in 1997 when Bauer won the U.S. Girls’ Junior, beating Lorena Ochoa in the process.

Bauer helped Duke win the 1999 NCAA Championship, then turned pro after two years of college golf. Chris and Beth embarked on a bare-bones journey through small-town America, toiling on the Futures Tour.

“It was rough,” Bauer said. “You don’t make a lot of money, but you’re chasing that card, staying at truck stops, eating cold cereal in a Motel 6 somewhere.”

The hard times were rewarding. Bauer won four times in 2001 and set a Futures Tour season earnings record with $81,529. She graduated to the LPGA and earned top-rookie honors with six top-10s, finishing 18th on the money list.

Her game went mysteriously downhill from there.

From 2004 to ’07, Bauer never finished better than 100th on the money list. Fear crept in. She got the “yips” with her driver.

“I can remember both feelings,” Bauer said. “What it felt like to be completely in control. And to then get to the course and just be absolutely terrified. Will I break 80 today?”

The last time Bauer went to LPGA Q-School, she called her entry fee a donation. She was lost.

“I don’t understand how that happens,” Stanford said. “How you go from ‘can’t-miss’ to ‘can’t-hit’? I thought if anyone was going to make it, it was going to be Beth.”

Meredith Duncan, a friend of Bauer’s since junior golf, paired with her years ago in a friendly competition at East Lake Woodlands in Oldsmar, Fla., and recalled the panic on Beth’s face when she stepped onto the tee.

“It’s so hard to watch,” Duncan said. “When you see that doubt in somebody’s eyes, it’s scary.”

Bauer dabbled with several instructors, trying to find something that would click. At the end of 2007, she called it quits. The mental demons had won.

Bauer, who always had enjoyed school, enrolled with the University of Phoenix online so that she could work as a cart girl by day, occasionally shocking patrons who unwittingly challenge her to hit a shot. Bauer discovered that, in the absence of competition, she couldn’t miss a fairway. Andy Grace said his wife has shot two rounds over par while playing with him: Once at Firestone in his native Ohio, and once at TPC Sawgrass, the day he proposed to her on the 17th green.

“Whatever imbalance I did have, it’s gone,” Bauer said of her current form, though she stopped playing in the latter months of pregnancy.

Bauer’s second career as an elementary-school teacher has been shelved indefinitely. She recently stained the rocking horse she used as a child and placed it in the corner of a cheery nursery. The last thing Bauer won likely was her neighborhood’s Yard of the Month contest. And what a smile that brought to her face.

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