College golf aficionados know all about the grit and determination of Reilley Rankin.
The rest of the golf world quickly is finding out.
Playing in her first major, the 25-year-old LPGA rookie posted a 4-under-par 67 June 12 to stand tied for fourth, two shots off Annika Sorenstam’s lead, through 36 holes at DuPont Country Club.
“Reilley who?” asked one fan Saturday.
Yes, there were plenty of more-familiar names on the McDonald’s leaderboard: Sorenstam, Inkster and Park among them. But few have a tale more courageous or compelling than Rankin, who almost four years ago was told by doctors that she might never walk or play golf again.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” said Rankin, who finished 71-73 Sunday to tie for 11th. “Every step means a lot to me, no matter what tournament it is, or even if I’m just walking somewhere other than on the golf course.”
Rankin was one of college golf’s top players when she decided to jump off a 70-foot cliff into the middle of an Alabama lake on June 4, 1999. She hit the water awkwardly, and as she drifted toward the bottom of the lake, the pain was overwhelming. Her back and sternum broken, her lungs and aorta bruised, a stunned Rankin somehow found the strength to fight her way up and break the water’s surface, where her friends gathered her into a boat and took her to the hospital.
Months of recovery and rehabilitation would follow. From lying flat on her back in a body cast at her Hilton Head Island, S.C., home to grueling rehab sessions at the University of Georgia, where she was the 1997-98 NCAA freshman of the year, Rankin set out to prove the doctors wrong.
Said Rankin: “When I got out of the hospital and went to a doctor at home, he said ‘You’ll probably never play golf again. . . . If you do, you’re going to have to add 6, 7 or 8 shots to your game.’
“I couldn’t walk, but I almost ran out of that doctor’s office (and never went back). It made me really mad, because the doctors just know what they know. Obviously, they can help us, but I don’t think they can ever predict somebody’s ability or determination. They don’t know somebody’s mindset.”
Five months after the accident, Rankin couldn’t lift her arms over her head. It was 13 months before she could hit a plastic golf ball and 18 months before she competed in another college tournament (she was 1 under par on her first nine holes). Yet less than two years after the accident, she helped lead the Bulldogs to the 2001 NCAA title.
After failing to earn her card at the 2002 LPGA Qualifying Tournament, she won two Futures titles and finished fifth on the tour’s money list last year, earning a full LPGA exemption for 2004. She had consecutive top-15 finishes earlier this year at the Takefuji Classic (T-8) and Chick-fil-A Charity Championship (T-14), and after her finish at DuPont, she ranks 50th in LPGA earnings ($86,809).
Looking back, Rankin wouldn’t change a thing – perhaps not even that dive off the cliff – saying it has helped her become the player she is today.
“I don’t have any effects any more,” she said. “Only my body knows – my mind doesn’t know I was ever hurt. The recovery was long, but the way I look at it, it’s the best thing I’ve ever gone through. . . . I grew a lot from it.”
During grueling rehab sessions, she employed visualization techniques similar to those espoused by Ben Hogan. She read several of his books, and was inspired by his recovery from a horrific automobile accident to regain his place as a major champion.
Rankin still uses visualization, playing rounds hole by hole in her head before she heads to the course, something she did Friday when the second round was rained out.
She couldn’t have played it much better in her head than she did in reality. Rankin had six birdies – including a 15-foot putt on No. 9, her last hole of the day. She also had gotten to 4 under through 11 holes in Round 1 before faltering with three bogeys down the stretch.
“I just learned from the first day,” she said. “I put it behind me after that round was over, but I just made my mind up (today) that I was going to close like a champion.”
Rankin has progressed to the point where the 36 holes she had to play Sunday wasn’t a problem physically. But it did pose a dilemma for her mental preparation. Would she have to go through DuPont’s 18 holes once in her mind, or twice?
“That’s a good question,” Rankin said, grinning. “I’ll have to think about that.”
It was one of several lighthearted moments in Rankin’s interview session in the media center following Saturday’s round. It was her first time in such a setting, but she handled it flawlessly. (And yes, she had visualized it beforehand.)
She told of her large extended family (“I have 27 cousins on my mom’s side, and 24 of them live on Hilton Head”), of her earlier desire to be a professional baseball player (“When the boys went through puberty, I was done,” she said) and bragged a little about her sports cards collection (she has 13 Mickey Mantle cards, a Brooks Robinson rookie and a limited-edition Ben Hogan card).
One of Rankin’s favorites, though, is her LPGA rookie card.
“That was probably more exciting than my first tournament, getting that,” she said.
To Rankin, of course, it’s more than just one item in her collection. It’s a symbol of her courage and drive, of her determination to make it back.
Whatever happens in the rest of her LPGA career, you can be sure of two things: Reilley Rankin won’t stop fighting. And she already has tasted victory.