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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

Grandma Still Dreams of Becoming a Rookie

July 18, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

The first time Cherie Zaun hit a golf ball, it was on a little course in Freeport, Ill., behind her backyard. In her early 20s and the mother of two, she had always been a good athlete, but professional sports aren't a career choice when you have barely figured out why it is you are married and with children.

But Zaun needed to get out of the house, so she grabbed daughter Kimber and son Gregg and went over to whack some golf balls. "The pro there said, 'Wow.' He told me I should take some lessons," Zaun says.

Zaun is sitting at a table in the dining room at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale. The San Gabriel Mountains stand guard out past the sparkling green fairways. Zaun is 47 now, a grandmother to two little boys, sons of Kimber. Gregg is a backup catcher with the Texas Rangers and newly married. Her stepdaughter, Stephanie Zaun, is expecting a child too. "Grandma for a third time, yikes," Zaun says.

In a couple of days Zaun will pack up and head back out to the golf tour grind. She is in the third of a five-year plan to make it onto the LPGA Tour. But now Zaun is a player on the SBC Futures Tour, the equivalent of the Nike Tour for the LPGA, the place where young golfers are supposed to prepare themselves for the big time.

"Yep," Zaun says, "everybody told me I was nuts. But it didn't matter. I knew what I wanted to do."

Zaun became hooked on golf almost from the time she hit that first driving range ball in Freeport. Her swing was easy and natural. The sensation of club striking ball felt good. Zaun had been a pretty fair volleyball player at Chatsworth High, but she married--"too young," she says--had Kimber and Gregg, moved to Illinois and Maryland and a couple of other places, divorced and came home to California.

Everywhere she went, Zaun took lessons and played local tournaments. Once, in Maryland, she actually qualified for an LPGA event. "I was the most surprised person out there," Zaun says. When she came back to California, Zaun got a job as a teaching pro at Wilshire Country Club and began to think she might want to try the LPGA Tour full time.

"Eddie Merrins [the head pro at Bel-Air Country Club] told me not to do it," Zaun says. "He told me to stay home and raise my children. He was right. But, still, I always had the dream."

Zaun's brother, Rick Dempsey, had worked hard to make his own baseball dreams come true. Gregg was doing the same. Zaun didn't want to become the old lady talking about how she could have been a professional golfer, if only she hadn't sacrificed herself, her wants and needs and talents.

Life was good, though. She and her second husband, Bob Zaun, had worked together to make Bob's family glass business, Jewel City Glass, prosperous. Cherie and Bob have a sweet house two blocks from Oakmont, a home surrounded by old trees and new flowers and a patio made for big barbecues and long afternoons of reading in the chaise lounge.

So why would Zaun want to pack up and leave Bob to stay in the local Motel 6 and ask for takeout margaritas and nachos at the Mexican restaurant in Lima, Ohio, after a round of 80?

Well, it turns out, for the same reason that Bob decided to sell the glass business, chuck it and follow his dream. To become a police officer.

Bob Zaun was a 50-year-old rookie on the Glendale police force, so how could he say no three years ago when Cherie decided to try and make it to the LPGA?

Zaun played for two years on the Players West Tour, where first prize is often less than $1,000. This year Zaun has moved up a rung, to the Futures Tour. Tournament purses run from about $40,000 to nearly $75,000, and the top three money winners will earn their LPGA card. The leading money winner this summer on the 19-tournament circuit is Eunice Choi of Dove Canyon, with $24,676. Zaun hasn't made a cut yet this year, a fact that hasn't dimmed her enthusiasm.

Though it costs her about $1,000 per tournament, Zaun has a sponsor, Lorne Person, who has bankrolled Zaun with about $20,000. In return she promotes a line of skin-care products called SolBar PF.

Zaun says she loves it when women half her age are astounded to find out that Zaun, without an ounce of fat on her body and without a detectable wrinkle, is a grandmother. "They call me Grandma and I love it when I can say, 'Grandma outdrove you this time.' "

Whenever Zaun gets depressed, gets to wondering about why she is in some cramped, moldy hotel room 3,000 miles from her lovely home, she talks to Gregg. "Gregg understands," she says. "Gregg's in the majors, but not the way he wanted to be. He has a World Series ring [from his Florida Marlin stint], but he'd give that up to be a starter. He knows about hanging in there."

"I admire a lot what Mom is doing," Gregg says from Texas. "She gave up this chance for us, and it takes a lot of guts to go out and try it now. She shouldn't quit unless she's sure in her heart she's given it her very best shot."

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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