Clear-headed

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. – Paige Mackenzie knew something wasn’t right the moment she spotted him. The stranger cascaded coins between his hands like a waterfall to get her attention. His intense stares sent shivers down her spine.

Mackenzie, 26, came to the LPGA in 2007 as a decorated collegian, poised to charm her way into the hearts of American fans with her bubbly personality and rising talent. Five tournaments into her rookie season, the man whom she first spotted in March was escorted off property at the Ginn Open. He showed up again at the Corning Classic in May, then at the Ginn Tribute in Charleston, S.C. By the time Mackenzie made it to the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, her seventh consecutive week on the road, she was mentally fried.

“This was one of the weeks I was looking over my shoulder five times a hole,” Mackenzie said. “I had no chance of playing well. I never should’ve teed it up.”

Two years later, Mackenzie returns to Bulle Rock for the McDonald’s LPGA Championship as a new woman. The University of Washington graduate hasn’t seen her stalker since 2007. She once again can focus over a golf shot and have a little fun. More importantly, her confidence is back, and putts are starting to drop.

“I never would’ve guessed it would have the effect on me that it did,” said Mackenzie, who opened with a 4-under 68 Thursday at Bulle Rock and is tied for fourth. “I just thought I could roll with anything.”

When Mackenzie first showed concerns two years ago in Phoenix, she asked family friends to question the fan outside the ropes. They discovered the former University of Washington maintenance worker carried a ball in his pocket that Mackenzie had signed three years earlier. Her fears deepened when she called university officials the next week and learned the man had been fired. His supervisors advised her to take the issue seriously.

Mackenzie informed LPGA officials, who immediately put security in her group at the Ginn Open in Orlando, Fla. Full-fledged panic set in when he showed up and police officers kicked him off property.

Wherever the LPGA played, the tour secured a county no-trespass order on Mackenzie’s behalf. The stalker, in violating the order, would then be escorted off the grounds. If he had returned, he would have faced arrest.

The rabid fan appeared at several other events throughout the season and told police his presence gave Mackenzie special powers. Needless to say, his wacky world wrecked Mackenzie’s game. The outgoing, independent All-American didn’t even feel safe in her parents’ house in Yakima, Wash.

“It’s a lonely life out there,” Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said. “At the end of the day, there you are in your hotel room by yourself.

“It just ripped your guts out.”

Going into the 2007 season, Mulflur expected Mackenzie to contend for Rookie of the Year. She opened her LPGA career with a 67 at the SBS Open in Hawaii and tied for 17th. Forty percent of her earnings that year came in the first four events of the season – before she spotted him.

Rookies have enough anxiety trying to get from Point A to Point B without the stress of being followed. The horrific ordeal cost Mackenzie hours of sleep, earning potential, and, most importantly, peace of mind.

Mackenzie praises the support she received from the LPGA as staff members escorted her to the parking lot at night.

“I don’t know if you can completely black it out like it never happened,” Mulflur said. “But I think she has put it in a place where she can deal with it.”

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Mackenzie’s association with short-game guru Stan Utley. She switched swing coaches in January and feels good about the changes. Though she missed the cut in the last two events, Mackenzie is quick to point out the scores these last few weeks have been exceptionally low.

“It doesn’t feel like all of a sudden I’m breaking through,” she said. “I shot 69 last week and missed the cut.”

Mackenzie realizes the immediate success of players such as Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel is rare. Still, she thought she would join them as the exception, jumping from amateur success into a professional windfall.

That didn’t happen. Mackenzie endured a hardship that nobody should experience.

For security reasons, Mackenzie asked two years ago that her stalker situation be kept out of print. Now, with the burden lifted and her freedom restored, Mackenzie talks with ease about the man who temporarily derailed her life.

“Finally, I feel normal again,” she said.

No need to look back over her shoulder.

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