Dakoda Dowd hopes her appearance at this week's LPGA tournament in Orlando will encourage early cancer detection.
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
Published April 23, 2006
PALM HARBOR - There are no ropes to hold back the spectators because, well, there are only two. Dakoda Dowd hits a tee shot. The thud as the ball lands short of the green is followed immediately by the groan of an exasperated teenager.
She carries her own bag, keeps her own score and goes about the business of competing in another of the dozens of junior golf tournaments she has played in since age 5. This one is at the Westin Innisbrook Resort, and the scene is quite different from the one she will experience this week.
When Dowd, 13, tees off on Thursday at the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open near Orlando, cameras will click, fans will cheer and a dream will be fulfilled. Dakoda will be playing in an LPGA Tour event, with her cancer-stricken mom, Kelly Jo, there to see it.
"If I get nervous, I'm going to look over and see my mom smiling," Dakoda said. "Once I look over and see her, all the nerves will go away."
It is a tournament she has been looking forward to for nearly six months, since the Ginn Co. announced it would give her a sponsor exemption to play in the inaugural $2.5-million tournament that has attracted just about all the top names in women's golf.
And it is a story that has received national attention. Dakoda rolls her eyes when she talks about the some 100 interviews she's done with publications such as People, USA Today and the New York Times.
Some might question whether it's all too much for a young girl whose mother is ill and whose golf game is a work in progress. The Dowd family has embraced the attention.
"I have a message to put out to the world right now," said Kelly Jo Dowd, 41, who followed her daughter from a cart, offering a few timely words of encouragement. "There's been some doors opened for me. I'm going to walk through the doors the best I can to relay those messages."
What she wants people to know is that she is terminal because, she believes, she ignored warning signs.
Dakoda was an accomplished junior player with a smattering of trophies when Kelly Jo, in late 2001, discovered a lump in her breast. It wasn't until 10 months later it was diagnosed as cancer.
She fought vigorously, through a double mastectomy and intense chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, but she continued to work at Hooters in Palm Harbor, where she had risen from waitress and calendar girl to general manager.
She was in remission until about a year ago, when doctors discovered cancer in her hip, liver and near her spine.
"I'm in this boat because I waited too long," said Kelly Jo, who recently began more chemotherapy. "Like any disease, breast cancer along with it, the sooner you get it, the sooner you can catch it and be done with it. So don't wait."
Although Dakoda has numerous junior titles and plenty of promise, her family is the first to admit her mother's health is the reason for this week's invite.
"It's an incredible gift," said Mike Dowd, Dakoda's father. "We're very privileged to be on the receiving end of it. It's allowed us to have something else to look at. My wife has been extremely excited about getting to this time. It is something very positive to focus on."
The Dowds have been touched by the outpouring of support. Hooters had a fundraiser for the family and paid for Dakoda's membership at Innisbrook, where the family lives in a one-bedroom condo. Kelly Jo in turn has raised money for various cancer-related groups, including makingmemories.org, which grants wishes to people diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
As for the golf, Dakoda had not played competitively for some time before last week's Innisbrook Easter Junior tournament, where she finished fifth.
How that translates to this week is a big mystery.
"I think she is going to handle it really well," said Matt Mitchell, an instructor at the Tampa Bay Downs practice facility who works with Dakoda and who will caddie for her in the Ginn tournament. "I think it's going to be fun for her. I can't give you a number. I think she is certainly capable of handling all the duress, especially once she gets off the first tee. I think she is going to be okay, but I don't know how you define okay. I wish I could give you a number, but I feel pretty positive about it. I'm going to try and help keep her from getting too high or too low."
There has been talk of early practice rounds with Annika Sorenstam and Cristie Kerr. Dakoda is scheduled to play in the Wednesday pro-am with Natalie Gulbis.
"I know she's going to be scared, nervous, anxious," Mike Dowd said. "The thing that will get us through it will be her mother's courage and what she is battling. Her attitude has been that if her mom is courageous enough to battle this cancer, then (she) can handle the crowds and the attention."
"I'm a little nervous for her," Kelly Jo Dowd said. "But that's a small percentage of the feeling. I'm off the Richter scale with excitement for her. What an incredible opportunity she's been given. It's very, very special. This does not come along for many people. I'm proud and happy that my daughter will be able to have this experience.
"I sense that she's got her head on her shoulders the right way. She's going to treat it like a tournament. She'll be nervous, but I think when she gets out there, she'll be in her own element."
And if she struggles Dakoda can always look to her mom for inspiration. After all, that's what this is all about.