Baldry: Pressel shares emotions of Israel visit

Morgan Pressel on a camel ride.

The girl was 3 years old when the war began. Morgan Pressel listened to her tell stories of a childhood spent in a concentration camp. The Polish Jew came to America as a 10-year-old orphan not knowing how to read or write in any language. Pressel, on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem center dedicated to the Holocaust, described the unnamed survivor in an essay she wrote on her December mission to Israel.

Standing in the Hall of Names and seeing the names of nearly 6 million Jews that perished during the Holocaust, it is hard to imagine how the world could even let this happen. It was a difficult hour-plus at the museum, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

The “light” she refers to is the Holocaust survivor who shared her experience with Pressel.

Athletes rarely pen their own stories. Pressel’s poignant missives, posted on Facebook, reveal the heart of a bright young woman who was touched deeply by the history of her Jewish ancestors. No doubt Pressel will return to the LPGA tour in 2012 a different woman. For starters, she’s betrothed. The 23-year-old and her fiance, Andy Bush, plan to marry next winter.

Pressel can’t believe she’s set to start her seventh year on tour, let alone trying on wedding dresses. She already has experienced more of the world than most will see in a lifetime. Israel, however, left a permanent impression.

Pressel’s “Golf Mission” was hosted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jewish National Fund and the "Positively Israel" campaign. Her younger sister, Madison, and grandmother, Evelyn, accompanied her on the trip, along with several family friends.

Pressel’s dizzying itinerary included dinner with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and visits with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Roni Milo, a former Tel Aviv mayor and member of Israel's Knesset. She rode a camel in a 100-foot circle on the top of the Mount of Olives and read a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea.

“It was an Israeli newspaper, though,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t read it.”

She met with members of the Peace Players, who use basketball to bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together. She also went to the only 18-hole golf course in Israel – Caesarea Golf Club – to put on a clinic.

The girls from the Peace Players, both Israeli and Palestinian, had never even seen golf before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We went over the basics and after 20 minutes or so they were all making contact!

Sport, Pressel later noted, takes a backseat to most everything else in Israel. She hopes the brief encounter will lead to something more for the girls.

“Golf teaches you life,” Pressel said. “Maybe one, maybe two, maybe 10 of those kids will tell their parents, ‘Hey, let’s go back out. I want to try that again.’ ”

Pressel called her visit to the Western Wall a powerful, humbling experience. She followed tradition by writing down her prayers and putting them in a crack in the stone wall, “the closest spot to the Foundation Stone and the Holy of Holies.”

“You’re on ancient ground, where for thousands of years people have stood there and prayed to the Holiest of Holies,” she said. “It’s very moving.”

The Pressel family also had a bit of a reunion when the visitors met up with Morgan's grandfather’s cousin.

Ami Maayani is an Israeli composer, architect, and philosopher whose works have been performed all over the world. The most fascinating part of the evening, however, was the fact that my grandmother had not seen Ami since 1974, since our mother (Kathy) was 14 years old. It was amazing to hear how much he remembered Kathy, at an age where my sister and I didn’t know her.

Not long after Pressel returned to the U.S., she held her fifth annual Morgan & Friends Fight Cancer Tournament in honor of her late mother, who lost a battle to breast cancer.

Pressel’s lineup was a who’s-who of American stars on the LPGA – Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Lexi Thompson and Brittany Lincicome. Together they raised $475,000 toward breast-cancer research at the Kathryn Krickstein Pressel Mammovan, which travels throughout Palm Beach County offering breast exams and health care to those in need. Pressel has raised more than $2.2 million in five years.

“It was our third-best year, and we were missing a couple of pretty big corporate sponsors,” Pressel said. “It was unbelievable that we were able to raise that much money this year.”

It truly has been a life-changing winter for Pressel, who looked all grown up in a fetching red gown at her event’s gala, her left hand sparkling. Pressel met Bush, senior vice president of global events at Octagon, at a pro-am in Tulsa, Okla., in 2007. (He’s a scratch golfer.) The two have been dating since May 2008.

With the LPGA season quickly approaching, Pressel turns her attention toward closing the gap on another title. She hasn’t won on tour since 2007.

“It’s been a great ride,” Pressel said on her drive home from a lesson with instructor Gary Gilchrist. “I’ve had so much fun so far, and I’m only 23. I’ve got plenty of time left.”

For Pressel, the mental game now takes a front seat. Gilchrist spends as much time trying to make her swing more solid at impact as he does working on her mind.

“The biggest hurdle for anyone leading a tournament is just believing you can (win),” Gilchrist said. “I think too many people spend their time focusing on the things they can’t control. It causes a lot of worry, anxiety. … Once you get your confidence high, good things will happen.”

It’s difficult to imagine Pressel going into a season with a better frame of mind, given all the recent high points.

While in Israel, Pressel planted a tree at the Harvey Hertz Ceremonial Tree Planting Center at Neot Kedumim, a biblical landscape reserve. She closed her online diary with these grateful words:

When we planted a tree early in the week, we were told to take a stone from the ground and bring it back home with us. We had to promise, however, that the stone would someday return to its home. So I will keep the stone on my dresser as a reminder of the trip of a lifetime, and I promise to return, hopefully many times, with the stone in hand. But in the meantime, I will take with me the lesson of perseverance I learned from the people of Israel, and apply it to every aspect of my life.

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