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Peggy Ference to Make History at U.S. Open: An Interview

By: Nancy Berkley


Peggy Ference

Peggy Ference is making history. Yes, you read it right. The first round of the U.S. Open is Thursday, June 17th at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California's beautiful Monterey Peninsula. And, for the first time in the history of women's golf - and probably in the history of the men's U.S. Open, an amateur female golfer, Peggy Ference, age 51, from Skillman, N.J., will play the Open course from the 7,040-yard tournament tees under tournament conditions on June 9th in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge - one week before the Open officially begins. Her goal is to break 100, a challenge Tiger Woods put in place a few years ago. With a new strategy for her golf game and her life, she's ready for Pebble.

No. 7 at Pebble Beach (Photo Courtesy of Joann Dost)

Peggy will not be playing alone. Peggy and her 4.9 handicap will join a foursome with Drew Brees, the MVP quarterback from the New Orleans Saints, who has a 3 handicap; Wayne Gretsky, National Hockey League Hall of Famer, with a 10 handicap; and the actor-producer Mark Wahlberg who plays to a 14 handicap.

The three celebrities were selected by the joint-event sponsors: Golf Digest, NBC and the USGA. But the fourth golfer, Peggy, representing an "average" amateur, earned her place as the winner of an essay and on-line voting contest. Ference captured 37% of the 65,000 online votes cast during the month of April.

The challenge round will be taped for a 90-minute TV special. All America will have a chance to watch the foursome on NBC television on Sunday, June 20th, right before NBC begins its coverage of the final round of the Open. Can she break 100? Remember: She doesn't have to shoot par. She only has to shoot 99 or less.

A little history of the event: This is the third year of the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge. The challenge began with a comment by Woods after playing the U.S. Open at Oakmont (outside Pittsburgh) in 2007, that a 10-handicapper couldn't break 100 playing that course under U.S. Open conditions.

Tiger may have been wrong. At the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo shot and 84, and in the 2009 Open at Bethpage Black pop star Justin Timberlake, NBA great Michael Jordan and Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all broke 90.

No non-celebrity amateur golfer has been able to do it - at least so far. Some observers have suggested that celebrities are used to crowds and can maintain their concentration while most amateurs cannot. For more about the celebrities, visit http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/usopencontest/2010/05/gd_usopen_challenge_celebrities.

But Peggy has a good shot at making history. She began her journey by making it through a rigorous screening process.

For the 2010 contest that began accepting entries in December, Golf Digest received over 24,000 60-word essays from average golfers who each had their very own reason for wanting to play at Pebble. From those thousands of essays, which are also part of a promotional sweepstakes, the judges selected five amateur golfers as finalists - four men and a woman.

The history-making news is that this is the first year a female golfer has been a finalist. And it's the first year the "women's network" could go to work and deliver the on-line votes needed to win. We always knew that women were great on-line communicators and word-of-mouth marketers, and Peggy's victory proved the point. For more background, visit http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/attention_women_golfers_who_want_to_make_history.

Hundreds of women (myself included) sent out hundreds of emails that generated thousands of votes. When the final results were tallied, Peggy won the contest with 37% of all votes cast. "Yea" to all the women (and men, too) that voted for Ference.

But on another level I wondered whether Golf Digest selected a women finalist on purpose - perhaps with a special motive. So I went to the source - Bob Carney, Creative Director of Golf Digest - and asked him whether there was some publicity reason for selecting a woman.

Bob promptly answered: "To your question about highlighting Peggy as the first woman, it would be strange not to acknowledge the fact that she is a woman, and that this is the first time that we've had a female in the foursome. That said, this is really about only one thing: an average golfer's dream of playing the Open course under the same conditions as the Open contestants. In other words, just as our amateur challengers have in the past, Peggy is representing all golfers, male and female. The Challenge is all about what a wonderful 'open' game this is, and it celebrates the role the USGA plays in keeping it that way."

The Treacherous 8th Hole at Pebble Beach
(Photo Courtesy of Joann Dost)

I really liked Bob's answer because the U.S. Open is unique to the game of golf. There are no farm teams, Tour cards to earn or qualifying tournaments to win. If you're a really good golfer, you can enter one of the regional qualifying rounds. It's "open" golf, in the true meaning of the word.

After hearing of Peggy's victory, I wanted to know more about her and what motivated her to take on this challenge. I emailed her and asked for an interview.

She accepted my invitation, and we spent over an hour talking about her family, love for the game and what she's doing to prepare for Pebble. I also asked a few "experts" to offer some advice, and then asked Peggy what she thought about that advice.

Following is our interview. I know you will enjoy meeting Peggy.

Q. Let's start at the beginning - when did you learn to play golf?

PEGGY FERENCE: I started to play golf when I was eight years old in 1966. I was living in Springfield, Ill., and my parents had joined a private country club, the Illini Country Club. To learn the basics, my mother signed us both up for a golf clinic sponsored by the YMCA. What's really interesting is that at that golf clinic, I remember using my mother's hickory-shafted clubs. My mom, who was a pretty amazing woman, managed to get a nursing degree, raise a family and even take up golf - probably back in the '50s when the LPGA was just getting started.

Q. I heard that you played Pebble Beach when you were 10.

PEGGY FERENCE: Yes, that's true. When I was 10 years old, our family went on a vacation to Pebble Beach. I have an older sister, and she and my dad scheduled a round of golf. I think that at the time, two golfers at Pebble were probably all our family could afford. That day, however, turned out to be cold - too cold for me to go swimming. So, I begged my dad to take me along on the course. He finally agreed but told me to just sit in the cart and be good. I started bugging him: "Why can't I play? This isn't fair!" He said that when we get away from the clubhouse he would let me hit a couple of shots.

As I remember it, we came to a hole that was surrounded by the ocean and was far away from the clubhouse. I know now that it was the 7th hole - the famous par-3. My dad hit a shot that landed in a bunker. Then my sister hit a shot that also landed in the sand. My dad said, "This is a perfect hole for you," and handed me my sister's 4-wood. I put my shot on the green and ended up parring the hole. He started laughing and we all couldn't stop laughing about it.

Q. So would you say that you were a "natural" at the game?

PEGGY FERENCE: Not really. I don't recall being a "natural." I credit the Illini Country Club. They had a very active junior golf system in the summer - one that I have never seen anywhere else. The juniors played every Wednesday and were divided into groups - half-hour group lesson and then we played on the course. The key I think was that parents were involved. Parents had to agree to be a "walker" two times during the season and once during a tournament. The parents gave us encouragement, helped with the safety aspects, offered a few tips and made it possible for all the juniors to play on the course rather than just stay on a practice tee. One summer, because I had to take typing classes in the morning, I ended up playing with the older group of girls who played 18 holes in the afternoon. I realized that I was playing as well as they were.

Q. Did you ever consider a career in golf - as a teacher or a tour player?

PEGGY FERENCE: No. not at all. My dad was a pediatrician, and I worked in his office and loved it. But I didn't want to be a doctor or nurse. I wanted to get married and have 10 kids! The drug company sales reps used to come in to the office. I couldn't believe that they got company cars. That really made an impression on me. I started asking them where they went to school and how they got their jobs.

My favorite rep had a pharmacy background and my chemistry teacher - a nun in the Catholic school I attended - also had a pharmacy background. That's what led me to the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and, in five years, earned my bachelor of Pharmacy degree. I always knew I wanted to be in sales because I am outgoing and love meeting people. I started working as a sales rep for the Eli Lilly Company, which at the time only hired pharmacists. My goal was to do med sales, get married and have 10 children! It's not exactly what happened.

Q. Was your golf skill a help in your pharmaceutical sales career?

PEGGY FERENCE: In our industry, we can't take physicians out to play golf. So I couldn't use my golf there. But golf did come in handy when we were at national sales meetings. The president didn't want to just play with guys because it was not a good diversity image. So I was the designated female in the president's foursome, even though at the time I was playing to a 16 handicap, which meant that I could pretty consistently shoot between 88 and 92.

Q. And what about the marriage and 10 kids?

PEGGY FERENCE: I did get married, but about 10 years later we divorced. And the 10 kids never happened. And, I didn't play much golf during that period either - except with my brothers and sister at family functions. My husband was not a golfer. Maybe I played five rounds a year and held on to my 16 handicap.

Q. What brought you to New Jersey?

PEGGY FERENCE: After my divorce, I needed a change. In 2000 at the age of 42, I took a new job with ImClone Systems and moved to Skillman, N.J., which is just a few miles from Princeton. The move was something of a wake-up-call for me. I decided that in my new life I was going to play golf again. I joined Cherry Valley Country Club where there were a core of good golfers to play with - both men and women, and no "men's-only" tee times. Most important, that's where I met Allan Bowman, the director of golf at Cherry Valley. It was a turning point in my golf - and my life.

Q. Talk a little more about this turning point and Allan's role in it.

PEGGY FERENCE: It starts with a wonderful woman golfer at Cherry Valley, Mickey Burgess - a role model for me. She had a 4 handicap and was the women's club champion. One day in 2002, I made the statement to Allan that I had a goal. My goal was to get down to a single-digit handicap and be the club champ.

Allan asked if I was really serious. When I said, "Yes," he made me an offer that I couldn't refuse. He said that he and his assistant were at the range every morning at 6 a.m., where they work on their games for an hour before the shop opens. If I was really serious and came every day - and they really meant "every" day at 6 a.m., they would take me on as their project. So I start getting up very, very early and making it to the practice tee by 6. I worked on my game for an hour and then took a shower and went to work.

Q. Did they make many changes to your swing?

PEGGY FERENCE: I would call it a complete overhaul. At our first lesson, they asked me what ball I played with. I told them I played with any ball regardless of the brand. They wanted to know how far I hit every club, and I couldn't answer that question. I remember Allan saying, "We are going to have to do a lot of stuff with you." They changed my grip, my swing plane, my putting. I had been putting with a reverse grip and they took me back to a regular grip and cut my putter down much shorter. Now I have a pendulum putting stroke with my arms straight down.

Q. How would you describe your swing?

PEGGY FERENCE: I think it's a strong swing. People tell me that I have a beautiful swing. It's evolved over the years. When I learned golf as a junior, the equipment and the instruction were different. I learned in the era of the "Reverse C" which was needed to get the ball up into the air. That means when my game is off and I revert back to old habits, I'm a slider and dipper. When that happens I have to tell myself to just "stay tall."

I think that I swing naturally. I describe it as: "When you are playing your best game, it feels like God is holding your hand." I am a thinker and pretty analytic - always reviewing everything and every conversation. But, when I am on the golf course, I have the ability to let that over-thinking go . . . and stay in the moment.

Q. Everyone will want to know: What equipment are you using?

PEGGY FERENCE: Well, I'm a "PING girl" - driver, woods, hybrids and most irons. My 56-degree wedge is a TaylorMade. And my 60-degree wedge is the Titleist Vokey. I have a couple of other wedges also. My putter is the Odyssey two-ball putter. And I play a Titleist ProV1 ball. My favorite club is my 7-iron, which I hit 135 yards. I'm counting on that club working for me.

Q. What about that driver?

PEGGY FERENCE: My PING driver is special. It has a pink Aldila shaft - the same one that Bubba Watson uses and Paula Craemer also. It has a special meaning for me because revenue from the sales of that pink shaft goes to breast cancer research. I call it my "Mom's Club" because my mom died of breast cancer 20 years ago. I feel like I have her with me when I play.

Q. Let's talk about how you are preparing for Pebble Beach? What's first on your list?

PEGGY FERENCE: This may surprise you. First on my list is that I pray a lot. In fact, every morning I say: "Dear God, let me accept whatever you are about to present to me out there and to enjoy it and understand the lesson." Clearly in my mind there is a lesson out there. Because how do I come to grips with being one of 24,000 entries and ultimately getting all these people behind me to win this contest.

Q. Has religion always been an important part of your life?

PEGGY FERENCE: Only in the last few years do I consider myself a religious person. I went to Catholic schools and was pretty typical. When things were bad, I went to mass. But when things were "okay," church wasn't that important. When I lost my job two years ago and things were bad, I started going back to mass. Usually I can pick myself up - but I was having a hard time getting another job. We have a great pastor here who helped me shift from feeling sorry for myself to becoming more involved in my church and my community. As I look back on those two jobless years, I have come to view them as really rewarding. My mother was a devout Catholic and went to mass every day. So in some regards, my rediscovering my Catholic faith is a tribute to her.

Q. Prayer is a good transition to my next question. A hot topic for competitive golfers is how they manage their minds and their nerves during a match. I asked Dr. Patricia Donnelly, who specializes in helping competitive athletes manage their mental game. Here is Pat's advice for you:

"First: Stay in the present. It is imperative as you are about to begin your pre-shot routine to erase all past and future shots. Focus only on executing the current shot to the best of your ability which you know is superior. Second: Although you will try to hit your best shot each time, remember no one hits all perfect shots. That would result in all birdies and a score of 54. Even Ben Hogan would tell himself before each round that he would hit five bad shots. So when he hit a shot he didn't like, he didn't get upset; he had expected it to occur. And third: Decide how you will relax during the round and practice these relaxation methods until they become automatic. This way they'll kick in during competition. Relax between shots - there are hours when you're not hitting shots. Deep-breathing, progressive relaxation and visualization are tried and true relaxation methods.

PEGGY FERENCE: That's really good advice and deep-breathing is a technique that I do use to relax. I also am trying to make contact with Bob Rotella, a friend of a friend, to see if I can get 10 minutes of his time and hear his suggestions. I am going to speak with Sherry Herman, who is the reigning USGA Women's Senior Amateur champion. I would like to know where her head is when she stands on that first tee.

Q. Suzy Whaley played from the tournament tees eight years ago at the 2002 Greater Hartford Open. She was the first female to take on that challenge since Babe Zaharias did it in 1945. Here's Suzy's advice for you as it appeared in an article by Stina Sternberg for Golf Digest online (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-digest-woman/blogs/golf-digest-woman/2010/05/suzy-whaleys-advice-for-peggy.html).

"I'd tell Peggy to stay focused on the task and not on the results. The golf ball has no concept of the tee played, score shot, or tournament entered. [When I was preparing for the Greater Hartford Open,] I devised a plan to get stronger mentally and physically, and I surrounded myself with people who supported my efforts and were there to help me accomplish my goals.

Q. And that leads to my next question because fitness training is also a hot topic in golf these days. I asked Karen Palacios-Jansen, the Managing Editor of Golf Fitness Magazine and developer of a program called "Cardio Golf," what her advice would be for you. Here's what she said:

"Strength-training exercises are important for increasing muscle strength and bone mass and require the addition of weight or resistance to challenge the muscles. But some people think that free weights and machines leave them tight in the shoulders and chest, so I recommend using resistance bands instead. Resistance bands stretch your joints and tendons while strengthening your muscles."

PEGGY FERENCE: That's not exactly my routine but I agree with it. I don't use bands - but definitely something to think about. My current program is: Lift weights three to five times a week, alternating upper and lower body; two to three sets of push-ups and 15-20 minutes of sit-ups; stretching and 30 minutes of cardio - alternating between the elliptical and the bike.

Q. Your training routine is impressive, but let's get back to golf and the shots you are concentrating on in these final weeks?

PEGGY FERENCE: My Achilles heel is my 30-yard shot. I spent April working on drives, long hybrids, putting and my 8- and 9-iron for short chips. But now that I won the contest, I have to be more efficient in my time. I am taking two lessons a week and only working on my 30-yard shots out of heavy rough. High, soft shots with my sand wedge that hit the green, bounce twice and stop.

Q. And what about course management and strategy? I asked Brad Klein, the Architecture Editor of GolfWeek magazine for his advice to you. Here's what Brad offered.

"The greens are so small at Pebble Beach and the surrounding trouble so difficult for recovery that I'd suggest never once looking at a flag but simply playing for the center of every green. It will help build confidence that way and it also takes a lot of pressure off your iron/approach game, since, by definition, you're allowing yourself the largest possible margin of error on each shot into the green."

PEGGY FERENCE: I absolutely agree with that strategy! I know that I cannot get on every green in regulation. I hit my driver about 220 yards. The pros hit theirs 250 or more! Although now that I am playing from Cherry Valley's back tees, I can see that the more I play, the more greens I hit. But I am prepared for Pebble and know that I will rarely get on in regulation. But, if I get nine bogeys and nine double-bogeys, that is a 99. Pars are a gift. I want to avoid the big numbers; so, I'm going to play "safe" - along the lines that Brad suggested.

Q. And I asked Ron Whitten, the Senior Editor of Architecture at Golf Digest, for his advice. Here is what he said:

"Who could possible outdo that gem of wisdom from Brad Klein? I'm sure that strategy will work, especially on the hourglass-shaped 17th green. Honestly, I have no advice for Peggy. The hardest thing in the world to do is shoot a particular score. I just hope she has fun. Enjoy the venue, the foursome, the scenery, the moment. If it works out, great; if not, it's only a game."

PEGGY FERENCE: I have to keep remembering that advice - it's so important. I will have about fifteen people - my personal gallery - cheering me along on the course, including my brother, my nephew (Mike's son) and his wife, my three best girl friends and a few other special golf friends. I hope I golf well, but just having them there on the course with me will make the day very special.

Q. Aren't you worried about the distractions: The cameras, the gallery and that you will be taped and then shown on national television?

PEGGY FERENCE: I am very good at blocking things out. I have played in our club championships and we have a gallery of 10-15 people or so walking along. There are a few other things that keep me focused on the present: I don't add up my score. I never add up after nine holes. I play one shot at a time and let the bad ones go. I am not going to think about how I am doing. I know that it will be a six-hour round. I will be prepared with my protein bars and nuts. I don't like to eat a lot but I have to make sure that I eat what I need for energy. And I've thought about what I will wear. It will be a skort if it's warm enough and a lot of layers because of the variable weather conditions.

Q. Have you met your other celebrity players?

PEGGY FERENCE: No. Not yet. I can feel the pressure building up. I will have practice rounds on June 7th and 8th. I have the last practice tee time and my teacher Allan Bowman is coming out for those rounds. We will play until dark. This is our chance to develop the strategy for how I will play each hole. Allan knows my game and swing and will keep me on track.

Q. All during our conversation, I have sensed how important your family is to you. And I know that one of your brothers died on a golf course.

PEGGY FERENCE: Everyone in our family played golf, so that is a special bond. My older brother, Mike, died of a heart attack after finishing the 18th hole on a course in Georgia on his way to watch the Masters. It was a trip of a lifetime for him. As a good luck charm, I carry a ball that he had in his bag - a ball marked with a smiley face. After my brother Mike died, we were going through the things on his bedside table. On top of everything was a scorecard with a round on it when he beat me! I also have a younger brother Matt who will be at Pebble Beach. He also likes to play competitively with me. I asked Matt to come to New Jersey and play in the Women's Metropolitan Golf Association Sister-Brother Tournament. We had fun. But we didn't win anything!

Q. We have really been talking mainly about your golf. I want to shift our conversation and get your thoughts on the bigger picture. What about teaching juniors? And what are your thoughts about the declining number of women golfers?

PEGGY FERENCE: For a number of years I have stated that my retirement goal is to work with juniors and women golfers. Learning to play golf can be very embarrassing and humiliating - lots of swings and misses. Women don't want to be publicly embarrassed. I think in the beginning - for both women and kids - golf has to be fun. Hit the ball eight times - then pick it up and put it down at a place where you can hit it to the green. I also think that women need to focus on getting that ball into the air - even if it means using a tee on the course. And women need to play on the course - even if just one hole. Imagine a place where you can go with your friends or husband for two or four hours - no cell phones, no kids, no interruptions. Golf has to advertise that benefit.

I think the trend towards shorter tees for women is great. If women score better, they will feel better and play more. I think it's good for the game that the Old MacDonald course out at Bandon Dunes in Oregon is putting in a shorter set of tees. That's a tipping point for the industry and the growth of women's golf.

Q. At most golf clubs, the number of women who want to play competitively - such as in club championships, is declining. What's your feeling about that?

PEGGY FERENCE: Yes, I see that decline at Cherry Valley also. I think that there is clearly a group of women who are competitive by nature and a group that aren't. I think that definitely when I play in competitive events or even in my Saturday game with the guys where everything may be riding on an 18th hole press, I get that adrenaline rush and enjoy it. Women like me are not worried about fear of failure. We just want to see how good we can be. But I also think that it is personally "okay" if women don't want that competition. I would much rather see the number of women playing golf increase - even if not playing competitively. We need to get more women out there playing golf.

Q. And, my final question: Why do you love to play golf?

PEGGY FERENCE: I love golf because every time you play, it's different. You can never perfect it and it's a constant challenge. It's the most mentally stimulating and challenging thing I do. But now that I have my handicap down to a 5, it's both a blessing and curse. When I shoot 82, it's a bad day. I'm hoping for a really good day at Pebble on June 9th!

Thank you, Peggy, for sharing so much about golf and your life and why you entered the contest. Your challenge could not be occurring in a better month. June is the "American Express Women's Golf Month," with Suzy Whaley as one of its spokespersons. Because many courses will be offering lessons and clinics for women, this is the month for all women to reconnect with the game - like you did - or to take it up for the first time. For more information about courses participating in Women's Golf Month, go to www.playgolfamerica.com.

And to all those women out there who are wondering if they could enter the 2011 contest and do what Peggy did, mark your calendar. Start looking at www.golfdigest.com and reading Golf Digest magazine. The contest entry information is announced in November.

In closing, please join me in sending special "Good Luck" wishes to Peggy. We all know she can break 100. But she already has made history by being the first woman golfer in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge. Don't forget to watch the NBC Special about the Challenge round on Sunday, June 20th. I will have a chance to meet her before she steps up to that first tee; so, watch for my follow up story.

ęcopyright Nancy Berkley 2010. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission by www.cybergolf.com.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She is also the author of the NGF publication: "An Insider's Guide to Careers in the Golf Industry." She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.