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Published: Thursday, 8/5/2004

Always her best shot: Toledo a key stop on Pepper good-bye tour

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Some have come to conquer.

Some have come with shaky games hoping to re-discover the magic.

All have come to chase fame and fortune.

Only one has come to say good-bye.

Dottie Pepper will call it quits at the end of the 2004 season, victimized by too many swings with a bum left shoulder.

A sport with more great players than ever, but fewer great shotmakers, bids adieu to yet another of the latter.

Pepper will be among a field of 144 players, including two collegiate amateurs, who open first-round play this morning, beginning at 7:30.

During a visit to Toledo earlier this week, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw claimed that the tour produced, on average, 23 of the top 30 players off the weekly earnings list to its tournaments in 2003.

"And we're slightly above that this year," he said yesterday.

It turns out the Farr Classic field is more than slightly below that. It will include six of the top 10, 13 of the top 20, and 18 of the top 30 players on this week's LPGA money list.

Despite those numbers, the 20-year-old Farr Classic has been one of tour's great success stories, in part because it has been blessed by a loyal player following.

Meg Mallon, a two-time U.S. Open champion, and Dale Eggeling are each playing here for the 19th time. Hall of Famer Betsy King has been a regular through the years. One of the LPGA's legends, JoAnne Carner, is back at age 65.

The tour's all-time most popular player, Nancy Lopez, made certain Toledo was one of the stops on her 2002 "farewell tour."

And Pepper did the same.

"Obviously, my roots here go back quite a ways," Pepper said yesterday. "I learned to walk in the city of Toledo."

That was in the late 1960s, when her father Don was a player with the Toledo Mud Hens. Traditionally, Dottie has played final rounds at the Farr wearing a Mud Hens replica jersey with her dad's No. 22.

"From the point I made the decision to retire, I had six more tournaments to play in to complete some contractual agreements, so making Toledo one of them was a no-brainer for me," Pepper said.

She is walking away because winning has always been her only priority.

"I made the decision because I couldn't prepare and practice to the extent you need to in order to win. I can't be out here feeling it's going to take catching lightning in a bottle to win a golf tournament. I need to know when I'm standing on the first tee that I can win. For some players, the status quo is good enough. I'm not one of those people."

Pepper insists that while she may be ending her competitive career, she is by no means saying good-bye to golf. She will be working two events as an analyst for NBC-TV yet this year, spent Monday night negotiating for a position with the Golf Channel, and met last night with officials from ESPN.

"I will probably be covering more golf than I ever played," she said. "I'm excited. The Golf Channel is talking about some studio work, which scares the heck out of me, but I'll learn.

"Heck, the thing that really amazes me is that I made it to age 38 before having to go through a job interview."

Seventeen LPGA wins, including two major championships, and career earnings of nearly $7 million made that possible.

She feels the tour she is leaving is better than the one she joined in 1988.

"You look at the money, the TV and media coverage, and all the avenues that are open to members of this tour and that's pretty obvious. I remember my rookie season we were playing the U.S. Open in Baltimore and the tour schedule said we were playing in Bethesda [Md.] the next week. But we still didn't know if Bethesda had the money to put up a purse. Those things don't happen today."

The Farr's purse this year is $1.1 million, with $165,000 going to the winner. Se Ri Pak, with four Farr wins in the last six years, will be defending her title.

Pak is one of the talented 20-something players in whose hands Pepper is leaving the future of the tour.

"The sheer number of good players who are capable of shooting great numbers is probably 10 times what it was when I joined the tour," Pepper said. "But there aren't as many great shotmakers. Not like Carner or Patty Sheehan, who could really maneuver the golf ball.

"I mean, look at the great talent I played against when I was the kid out here. Kathy Whitworth, Sandra Haynie, Pat Bradley, Nancy Lopez - so many others.

"They had to learn to manipulate an inferior golf ball. They didn't have the equipment. They didn't grow up with the technology today's young players did.

"Players today walk to the tee with one shot and use it all day because they grew up with golf balls designed to go straight. They've certainly taken advantage of it. So many of them can put up low numbers."

Until her shoulder ailment made it difficult, so did Dottie Pepper, who always walked to the first tee with a bag full of forged irons and a full arsenal of shots. With the days now growing short, few of those shots remain for the popular LPGA star.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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