Angela Stanford: Major focus

Angela Stanford at home in Fort Worth, TX.

Angela Stanford at home in Fort Worth, TX.

FORT WORTH, Texas – Angela Stanford wanted to watch Phil Mickelson try to win one for his cancer-stricken wife at Bethpage. But her mother, Nan, had her own breast-cancer biopsy that Monday.

Stanford prayed she wouldn’t have to follow in Mickelson’s footsteps.

“Everyone who knows me knows she’s my best friend,” said Stanford, whose fears were confirmed June 25 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and soon will begin chemotherapy. “She’s it for me.”

Stanford, 31, pulled out of the Wegmans LPGA and made her return last week at the Jamie Farr.

“I said to her, ‘I’ll decide when I go out again,’ ” Stanford said. “(Mom’s) comment was, ‘I don’t think you understand how much we like watching.’ ”

Stanford’s humble beginnings keep her rooted in things deeply American: God, family, national championships. She’ll be a favorite among the Americans at Saucon Valley Country Club July 9-12, with LPGA money leader Cristie Kerr, the 2007 Open champion, and world No. 4 Paula Creamer. Stanford will be searching for her first major title.

With her mother’s health weighing heavily, Stanford’s focus will be tested. She could – like Mickelson, who tied for second at the men’s Open – use her time inside the ropes as an escape.

“I haven’t had to go through anything like this yet,” Stanford said. “The closest would be in Guadalajara, when my aunt was going through her third open-heart surgery. They’re in your mind and on your heart. . . . It makes you want to focus and play hard, because it’s not just you anymore. You’re playing for someone else.”

Stanford won that week in Mexico.

• • •

Am I a one-hit wonder? The question plagued Stanford for years. She looked to friends, family, even God for answers. After going wire-to-wire to win the 2003 ShopRite Classic, Stanford found herself in a three-way playoff one week later at the U.S. Women’s Open. She and Kelly Robbins lost to Hilary Lunke that Monday at Pumpkin Ridge, but the floodgates seemed primed to open.

Instead, a deeply frustrated Stanford endured a five-year victory drought. During the 2005 offseason, she pushed aside thoughts of quitting and rebuilt her swing, dropped 25 pounds and became a top-10 machine.

Still, no wins.

It wasn’t until a come-to-Jesus moment on a September Saturday night in Mobile (or Mo-BILL, as the Texan calls it) that Stanford came to grips with the fact that she might not win again.

“A lot of people would give anything to win once,” said Stanford, who led by four going into the final round of the 2008 Bell Micro LPGA Classic.

“Deep down, I finally believed that regardless of what happens, if I never win again, God will take care of all the areas I think winning might cure.”

Stanford knows that sounds a bit backward. Most elite athletes thrive on high standards. Stanford tried that tactic and grew weary under the pressure.

Finally, she turned the matter over to a higher power and basked in the freedom. Stanford won the next day in Mobile, two months later in Mexico and again at the ’09 season opener in Hawaii – three victories in a span of eight events.

Stanford has morphed into one of the best ballstrikers on tour, finishing no worse than eighth on tour in greens in regulation since she began working with Mike Wright in winter 2005. Couple that with an enviable putting stroke, and it’s no wonder close friends see a confident swagger.

photo

“She’s had to work for everything, and that’s how it should be. In the real world, things aren’t handed to you. You have to earn it."

Stanford’s success has rubbed off on her inner circle, too. Brittany Lincicome came out of nowhere to win this year’s first major, holding off good friend Kristy McPherson at the Kraft Nabisco. Meredith Duncan, the 2001 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who regularly opens her wallet for Stanford on the golf course and in spades,qualified for the Open for the first time as a professional by visualizing Stanford’s putting stroke.

“I might need to start cheating to keep up with them,” Duncan cracked.

Stanford’s support team also includes Stacy Prammanasudh and Duramed Futures Tour player Jenny Gleason. What’s the point in winning tournaments if there’s no one at the 18th to pour a beer over your head?

“You can’t connect with a trophy,” said Stanford, who has enjoyed several beer baths of late.

When Stanford and McPherson tied for fifth at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship June 14, Duncan sent each a text message: “Another great tournament and another great check. I think you both owe me a steak dinner.”

The U.S. Women’s Open – with its rotating courses, consistent standards and emphasis on par – easily tops Stanford’s list of majors.

“I don’t like those events where everybody goes deep,” she said.

• • •

Back home, Stanford gave a tour of Fort Worth in her Lexus IS 350. A Fort Worth native, Stanford lived in four houses within a two-mile radius through college at Texas Christian, spending most of her life in suburban Saginaw, where her parents work for the city.

TCU coach Angie Ravaioli-Larkin cites Stanford’s “humble background” for her strong spirit.

“You just don’t find that in golf or sports much anymore,” Ravaioli-Larkin said. “She’s had to work for everything, and that’s how it should be. In the real world, things aren’t handed to you. You have to earn it. . . . It’s kept her humble. She hasn’t forgotten, and she never will.”

As a student at Boswell High School, Stanford played basketball and golf, with her father, Steve, taking her to tournaments. She worked nights at Sonic for extra cash.

“You either got your food or you got me on skates,” she said. “You were never going to get both.”

Farther down the road, Stanford smiled broadly while passing Billy Bob’s, “The world’s largest honky tonk,” located in the famed Fort Worth Stockyards. She owns three pairs of boots and one cowboy hat, which she wears while listening to country-music artist Pat Green, an avid golfer and personal friend.

Like many Texans, Stanford reveres her state, calling it “God’s country.” She vows never to leave, having built a 3,500-square-foot home in December 2007. During the Kraft Nabisco telecast, a commentator referred to her property as a “ranch,” which might be true if she had an animal or more than 1 acre.

At the Stanford “ranch,” ESPN is on nearly every hour. She gets her world news from “SportsCenter” – even has a TV behind a mirror in the master bath – and turns it off at 11 p.m. to watch the first rerun of “Friends,” her only sitcom.

Stanford finds joy in simple pleasures: Finding out her beloved Texas Rangers pulled out a victory; guzzling a six-pack of Diet Dr Pepper that she lugged across an ocean; taking money off Juli Inkster and Pat Hurst in a friendly birdie game; eating more Mexican food than Lorena Ochoa.

When it comes to golf, nothing is more relaxing for Stanford than hitting a few balls under Ben Hogan’s tree at Shady Oaks Country Club.

“I never hit it bad,” she said.

For years, Stanford wouldn’t touch the turf beneath the stately oak. She refers to the golf legend as “Mr. Hogan” and takes pride in Shady’s history. Stanford reinvented her swing on a mat Wright put down for her on the “little nine course,” just below Hogan’s tree.

When she’s in town, Stanford plays in a standing game known simply as “The One.” Teams of four play two best-balls. (If they are short a player, Hogan fills in as a plus-3 handicap.) Winners buy nachos and sit around Hogan’s table, where “The Hawk” kept watch on members playing below.

Twenty-three years ago, Wright became head pro at Shady Oaks at age 23, with Hogan’s blessing. He tries to pass on lessons learned from Hogan to Stanford, such as the importance of asking “Why?”

Stanford worked with instructor Amy Fox for 12 years and didn’t ask questions. While on her couch watching the U.S. win the 2005 Solheim Cup at Crooked Stick, Stanford knew it was time to make changes. She marched into Wright’s office and told him, “You’ve got to stop my ball from moving right to left, or else I’m going to quit.” It’s a ball flight they refer to as the “Saginaw Sling.”

Wright accepted the challenge and helped Stanford reinvent her swing. She now has the game to match the competitive spirit inherited from her mother, “even though she doesn’t have an athletic bone in her body.”

Stanford loves to tell the story of when Nan, while playing Monopoly with her husband and several other couples, flipped the board when she lost.

“If I can’t play, y’all can’t play,” Nan said.

At the ’03 Women’s Open, Nan told her daughter on the way to the course that Monday morning that all three women in the 18-hole playoff already were winners. Even she didn’t believe it.

Stanford flew the red-eye home from Pumpkin Ridge on Monday night and took her mother shopping for a new Cadillac the next day.

Nan burst into tears and tried to talk Angela out of it with the old I’m-calling-your-father routine. Nan eventually agreed to test-drive a Yukon Denali and fell in love. Angela bought dad a bass boat.

So what might happen if Stanford were to win this time?

“I’ll probably get a house,” Nan said, laughing.

Anything to make mom smile.

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