LPGA: Back in the Swing

Colleen Walker's homecoming to the LPGA Tour means more than just golf--it's a win over breast cancer.
Carolanne Griffith Roberts

Meet 8-year-old Tyler Walker Bakich, who travels to his mom's events--in person or by bag tag. Colleen Walker can't walk 10 paces off the course this particular sunny day without attracting attention. She's a virtual magnet for hugs--giving and getting warm welcomes from fellow LPGA players, caddies, and fans alike. There's a special squeeze in each hug for sure--one of reward, relief, hope, and promise.

Colleen's been off the Tour for two years--and this day, she's finally back with assurances to all around her that, indeed, breast cancer is the enemy. And that enemies exist to be conquered. The strong-willed athlete is anything but shy about sharing her story and about gently lecturing women to take precautions and action.

"I have a pretty strong drive to do things," she says, allowing the understatement to sink in. "My goal was to play in a senior LPGA [Women's Senior Golf Tour] event at the end of last summer. It was something to look forward to, something to keep me practicing."

So practice she did--every one of the 25 days she underwent the radiation treatments. "I'd go in at 8:30 in the morning, be home at 9:15, and my husband and I would be on the course at 10. I could have allowed myself not to, but that's not me."

Even More Determination
When her doctor ordered aggressive chemotherapy, Colleen continued to practice near her home in Tampa. "The worst part about it is that you're tired, and I'm not used to being tired," she explains. "I would stay inside for about a week, and then I'd go out and hit balls for about two weeks before the next round. I made it through the Florida heat--and the wig was hot."

You can guess the rest. She played in the event two weeks after the end of treatments--riding in a golf cart (a senior tourney perk) and flaunting a new attitude. "The big picture is this: Don't get upset with life," says the 48-year-old, who began playing on a boys' team at age 14. "Before, I was totally goal-oriented. Now I'm going to go out there and enjoy."

R.J. Walker, Colleen's caddy for this triumphant return, knows another motivation in his sister's life. The Atlanta businessman points to a bag tag dangling from Colleen's clubs. "That's a photo of Tyler, who's 8," he says, beaming with the pride of a boastful uncle.

Tyler's Mom
Colleen swirls around at the mention of her son's name. "He plays golf well, but baseball is his love," declares the self-confessed "dugout mom." "Having Tyler kept things normal for me during all of this. I get up and fix him breakfast. I throw 50 to 100 balls to him every day." As for Tyler's future in golf? "His dad [Ron Bakich, Colleen's husband and long-time teacher] and I are both golf professionals. Baseball is his little thing. I love the fact that he has passion at this age," Colleen says.

"I'm not going to play in all the Tour events--maybe 10 this year," she continues. "I used to play 26 to 32 weeks a year, but I have a life at home, and Tyler has a life--and they don't stay young for long, right?"

Colleen then emphasizes a newfound message to other women. "You know, you have two choices when you get the diagnosis: You can either feel sorry for yourself, or you can fight it. I'm not one to feel sorry for myself. I keep stressing to everyone to please keep their appointments for mammograms. My cancer was detected in an annual checkup."

With that, she heads back to the tee--perhaps to win, but definitely to celebrate the gift of another round of golf.

Golf's Gift to Women
"The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is our charity for the LPGA Tour," says Colleen. For this reason, many Tour players participate in fund-raisers, as Colleen did last spring in the Annual Drive Out Breast Cancer LPGA Pro-Am Golf Tournament, sponsored by Southern Living At HOME. This Birmingham-based tourney has raised nearly $1.5 million for research since 1996. Through their combined efforts, LPGA players have raised some $5 million to fund research and raise awareness of the disease.