Lindley exits LPGA with a smile

Leta Lindley

Leta Lindley

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – The LPGA lost a great smile this week. Leta Lindley, one of the perkiest players on tour, walked hand in hand with husband/caddie Matt Plagmann up the 18th fairway for the last time on Friday at the Kingsmill Championship. They were scrambling for tissues after Lindley signed her scorecard, trying to get composed before a Golf Channel interview. Lindley, who missed the cut, said goodbye after 18 years on tour to focus on being a mom.

“I’m the girl that was never going to do it,” Lindley said. “I would never get a college scholarship; I would never win a college tournament; I would never get my card, let alone keep it. And then to win (an LPGA) tournament after having two children, sometimes I feel like the 'Little Engine That Could.' ”

Lindley and Plagmann met in a parking lot in Tuscon, Ariz. A fired-up Lindley was throwing her clubs and shoes into the trunk of a car when Plagmann, smitten at first sight, stopped to offer encouragement. Plagmann was there competing for Scottsdale Community College in a tournament while Lindley had just lost in a playoff at a University of Arizona team qualifier. Lindley apparently wasn’t in the mood to flirt, but Plagmann drove home that night and told his father he had met the girl whom he was going to marry.

What Plagmann didn’t realize was that he’d be the one toting her bag around the world for nearly two decades. But, oh, what a happy grind.

“We’re going home for the right reasons,” a proud Plagmann said outside the scoring trailer. “She can still play; she can still make cuts. But our kids need us.”

Lindley, 40, was one of 21 moms on the LPGA. Of those players, only five have won since giving birth: Juli Inkster, Pat Hurst, Catriona Matthew, Maria Hjorth and Lindley.

While motherhood brings a refreshing perspective all its own, there’s no question that those traveling week to week toting families endure an extraordinary balancing act. Marcy Hart, one of Lindley’s playing partners the last two days and a fellow mom, marveled at Lindley’s success all these years.

Lindley crossed the $3 million mark in career earnings earlier this season. When she won the 2008 Corning Classic, she and Matt were traveling around the country with two small children in a GMC Conversion van. It took 295 starts, but Lindley won her first LPGA tournament in the midst of a maddening rat race. Her dark eyes sparkled on Friday as she spoke about the man who quite literally stood by her side.

“I always felt there were caddies who would say, ‘Well, she can’t play that golf course; it’s too long,’ ” Lindley said. “Matt would never tell me that.”

A saturated Kingsmill track, however, proved a beast of a course for Lindley this week. Plagmann estimates they hit 15 3-woods into par 4s over the last two days. Lindley had to rise at 4 a.m. Friday to complete Round 1, and then immediately launched into another 18-hole grind. Missing a cut is never the ideal way to bow out, but, as Lindley said, it was a “swift kick in the behind” that assured player and caddie that the right decision was made.

Lindley ranks 151st in driving distance, at 221 yards. For the past decade, she has carried six woods in her bag: driver, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11. She avoided going back to Q-School these past 18 years because she carried a fantastic short game and hit it straight. Distance, however, remained elusive. The 5-foot-4-inch Lindley simply doesn’t swing fast enough.

“She’s a girly girl,” Plagmann said. In retirement, Lindley plans to “dominate” the red tees.

Lindley’s gallery on Friday included Dave and Louise Fong, a couple from California who housed the Lindleys at the old Danville event. Ronnie and Ira Levine also flew up from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where the Lindleys now make their home.

Lindley met the Levines through a charity outing for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association several years ago. Lindley has since put her name on the event and helped the Levines increase annual fundraising from $10,000 in 2003 to $200,000 last year.

Prader-Willi Syndrome is a congenital disease in which children have insatiable hunger. The inability to feel full often leads to obesity and other related health issues. The Levines’ 10-year-old granddaughter Josilyn maintains a strict 1,200-calorie diet. She’s one of the many children with the disease who have captured Lindley’s heart.

“(Leta) said, ‘I have this God-given talent and two healthy children,’ ” Ira recalled. “How do I not give back?”

On Wednesday at Kingsmill, Lindley and several of her friends on tour attended a cocktail party that raised more than $12,000 for Prader-Willi research. The event was coordinated by a local man whose 4-month-old grandson suffers from the incurable disease. It was a fitting addition to Lindley’s farewell.

“We’re losing a pretty cool person,” said Stacy Lewis, who plays in Lindley’s annual charity event. “Every time you see Leta – whether she played good or played bad – she’s got a smile on her face, and that’s pretty rare out here, truthfully.”

And so Lindley will return home to 8-year-old Cole and 6-year-old Reese. She had missed their first days of kindergarten, some first words, maybe a first crawl. She’ll take off Monday and then start making phone calls Tuesday, trying to “plant some seeds.”

In the meantime, there will be ballet recitals, soccer games and homework.

“Ultimately, they’re my legacy,” Lindley said of her children.

Keep smiling, Leta.

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