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Out of the Rough : Laguna's Sally Little Battles Back Into LPGA's Elite Ranks After Illness

June 15, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

When she first strode into the unforgiving field of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tour 18 years ago, Sally Little looked like Princess Diana and played like Wyatt Earp.

Fourteen years later, she had picked her rivals' collective pockets on the golf course to the tune of $1.2 million to become the LPGA tour's 12th millionaire.

But on the road from rookie to riches, Sally Little became so desperately ill that she could barely hold a club, much less control it. She suffered bouts of depression and near-constant pain. Within a month after her final appearance on the 1982 tour, she was forced to make a choice between her career and her life.

For an entire year, throughout 1983, she gave up golf, suffering not only from endometriosis--a debilitating glandular growth in the pelvic cavity--but from the effects of the drugs she was taking to treat the condition. It was a process, she said, that turned her into a weakling, robbing her of the concentration, strength and will needed to succeed at one of the most unforgiving of sports.

But last year, after capturing one of the LPGA tour's major championships, a rejuvenated, newly confident Sally Little was voted the Ben Hogan Comeback Player of the Year. The award, given by the Golf Writers Assn. of America, recognizes a golfer, male or female, for overcoming a debilitating disease or injury and rising once again into the game's top ranks. She is No. 14th on the all-time list of money winners, despite the layoff.

Today Little, 37, appeared vibrantly healthy as she strolled along the sand at Shaws Cove a couple of blocks from her Laguna Beach house and spoke about her native Cape Town. It was Laguna Beach's similarity, both in geography and climate, to the South African port city that drew her to Orange County.

But her first stop in the United States was Buffalo Grove, Ill. In 1971, at 19, she won the South African match-play and stroke-play championships and was the low individual scorer in the World Amateur Team Championship.

Little decided to come to the United States in hope of joining the pro tour. Through mutual friends, she was introduced to and moved in with golf equipment corporation executive Mike Metzgar and his wife, Vicky, in Buffalo Grove. Using the Metzgars' home as a base, Little played in seven tournaments in 1971 and was named LPGA Rookie of the Year.

"I was pretty lost when I first came over here," Little said. "I was very young emotionally, and I was totally out of my element. I really learned to play professionally out on the tour, unlike all the people coming up now who have experience through college. If it weren't for Mike and Vicky, I don't think I would have stuck it out."

As she became accustomed to the loneliness and pressure of the tour, she continued to improve. Two years after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to repair cartilage damaged in an old motorcycle accident, Little won her first LPGA title in 1976--holing an 80-foot bunker shot for a birdie on the final hole at the Women's International tournament.

However, all was not well. Little was found to have endometriosis. A potentially serious disease, endometriosis occurs when tissue identical to the uterine lining grows abnormally elsewhere in the body--in Little's case, in the abdomen.

Though a relatively common disorder, endometriosis "can be very serious," said Dr. William Benbow Thompson Jr., vice chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UC Irvine.

"It can produce an intestinal obstruction, infertility or adhesions. Pain is the primary complaint," said Thompson, who has not been involved in Little's case.

Her doctors, she said, "had put me on normal birth-control pills, and that didn't seem to help it. In fact, it seemed to make it worse. I'd go in and out of feeling well and fighting it. I was basically a very healthy individual until that happened, and I just slowly got worse and worse. I had fatigue and a lot of cramping. I wasn't feeling very good at all. It had gotten really bad."

Little underwent a hysterectomy in 1976, but the disease returned, and she began a regimen of drug treatment.

Though uncured, Little continued to play on the tour and, each year from 1976 to 1982, she finished among the top 10 money winners. But the disease wore on.

"It was devastating," she said, "because they put me on this heavy, heavy hormonal medication, and that just wipes you out metabolically. It affects other people differently, but I felt awful."

She was taking both Depo-Provera and Danocrine, hormonal medications that Thompson said are seldom used together. Their side effects vary from person to person, he said, but "both can have side effects that are undesirable."

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