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Bill Plaschke

Heart Of A Champion

Despite a condition that leaves her fighting for her next breath, MacKinzie Kline plays golf better than the rest of her 14-year-old peers

July 16, 2006|Bill Plaschke

ENCINITAS — Bad heart? If you really believe MacKinzie Kline has a bad heart, then you're not hearing her thump-thump-thump through life.

She became the top-ranked 14-year-old female golfer in the country even while breathing as if sucking air from the bottom of a sand trap,

She has won tournaments sponsored by Phil Mickelson, even as his green jacket is complemented by her blue lips.

She has two open-heart surgery scars, yet she proudly wears a bikini to the beach.

She has an extremely fragile chest, yet her favorite playground game was -- cover your eyes -- dodge ball.

Bad heart? We should all be so blessed to have MacKinzie Kline's heart.

Now, that muscle underneath her shirt, that's another story.

It has never worked right. It's missing one of two pumping ventricles. This substantially decreases the amount of oxygen in her blood. Her home is near a San Diego beach, but she takes every breath as if she lives on Mt. Everest.

She could never run or swim or jump, so she played golf, dominating the junior circuit, winning so much championship crystal, her parents use the bowls as vases.

But about six months ago, as the courses grew longer and her body grew bigger, her breath grew shorter. After nine holes she was exhausted. By the time she reached the 18th hole, she was sometimes light-headed and loose-gripped and weeping.

Doctors didn't know what was wrong. Could be her heart, could be the golf, could be fixable, maybe not.

Doctors asked her to undergo immediate catheter surgery for answers. Her parents agreed. But she stared at them through her huge green eyes that glow underneath thick blond hair. And she begged.

Couldn't they wait until she played in the U.S. Girls Junior Championships this week, and U.S. Women's Amateur championship next month?

"I don't know what will happen after that operation," she said. "I have a chance to take my dreams now, and I want to take that chance."

Doctors said, fine, but how? How can she play as many as nine rounds of golf in one week when, in her last tournament, she barely lasted 18 holes?

MacKinzie Kline said, just watch.

She stuck an oxygen tank in her bag, and stuck her bag on the back of a golf cart, and her parents won U.S. Golf Assn. approval for both.

She will thus play the Girls Junior Championships in Charlotte, N.C., this week as if she were riding down a hospital hallway.

The oxygen will fit under her nose between shots. She will rest in the cart between holes. It will be ungainly, unusual, but undeniably MacKinzie.

Around her neck she will wear a silver heart given to her by her parents. Between shots, she will grip the heart tightly and pray.

If only she could be as sure about the other one.

"It scares me that I might not ever be the golfer I was meant to be," she said. "I've got to find out."

Heavy words for someone 5 feet 2, 110 pounds.

The real Big Mac.

*

That's what everyone calls her, "Mac."

The old hackers at the Encinitas Ranch public course where she plays. The kids at the neighborhood public school she attends.

She is even called "Mac" by her parents, who inserted the capital 'K' in the middle of her first name so folks would break off the first three letters and make her sound like something tough.

When she was born with a heart defect that she would not have survived 30 years ago, they knew she would have to be tough.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy for her," said her father, John.

After watching her undergo two heart surgeries before the age of 2, they worried she would never fit in with the other kids. They asked doctors if there were any sports she could try.

Soccer? Too much running. Softball? A home run might exhaust her. Track and field? Be serious.

One of the cardiologists casually mentioned that he was a golfer, offering it as a last alternative.

"We thought, 'Golf?' " John said. "We knew nothing about golf."

Neither he nor wife Elizabeth had ever played. They still don't play.

They bought Mac some plastic clubs and she took a few swings and smiled. They drove around until they found a public course, and asked the pro if he could teach her.

"At the time, I didn't teach 6-year-old children," said John Mason, the Encinitas Ranch pro. "But one look at her, I made an exception. In her hand-eye coordination, in her swing, you could just see she would be something special."

With everyone walking slowly and competing carefully, the golf course quickly became one of the places she felt normal.

Not like the school playground, where she couldn't play on the jungle gym for fear that she would hang upside down and pass out.

Not like the school's jog-a-thons, where she would always be the one walking at the end.

"I would get out of breath and have to stop," she said.

Those solitary strolls were perfect for the golf course, where, at age 10, she won the California Junior Girls championship. It was the first of several wins that pushed her, in unlikely fashion, to the top of the national rankings.

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