published Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Toughened Pancake starts pro career

  • photo
    Alabama women's golfer Brooke Pancake putts during the SEC Championship golf tournament in Auburn, Ala. Pancake is now officially going pro.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Brooke Pancake says goodnight to her father every time she turns out the light in her bedroom.

But she never gets a response.

A picture of him in a frame cannot speak.

Dr. Bruce Pancake was found dead at his private practice on Sept. 17, 2007. The cause of death was determined to be suicide.

Brooke had just completed a tournament in South Carolina near the end of her senior season at Baylor School.

"It was one of those things that you had to face," she said. "Things happen that you don't think will happen."

Then one of the best high school golfers in the country -- she had three TSSAA state medals at the time -- Pancake crumbled at the loss of her father. Yet with assistance from a close-knit family, an extended group of friends and a larger group of supporters, she has risen above her personal tragedy and become one of the best players in Chattanooga's illustrious golf history.

"They helped me move on and strive," said Pancake, who will make her professional debut Thursday in the U.S. Women's Open in Wisconsin. "Things happen for no reason -- no reason you understand -- but you have to wake up the next day and do your best."

Her best has been exceptional.

She reached the U.S. Women's Amateur semifinals in 2011 and was the 2012 NCAA runner-up after sliding in the winning putt on the last hole to give Alabama the team title. She was a three-time All-American, and she went 3-1-1 for the United States in the recent Curtis Cup on Scottish soil.

"She's the most decorated player we've ever had," Alabama coach Mic Potter said. "Especially if you put the academics with the athletics, it's not even close. She may not have the career scoring average, but when you add in academics, she's tops."

Pancake graduated in May with a marketing degree and a 4.0 grade point average.

Potter kept a close eye on her during her recruiting process. He even saw her "lay the sod over an iron and dump it in the water" during a tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

He liked how she handled that error. Pancake finished the hole with no apparent emotion and moved on to the next tee.

This week at Blackwolf Run Golf Club in Kohler, Wis., the best female golfers in the world will challenge a course similar to Whistling Straits. Pancake said she's ready to tackle the tough setting in her pro debut.

"There's nothing scary right now because I'm embracing it," she said. "Good or bad, it's nice to say we've made it this far."

A record-setting amateur career has come to a close. She is the only teenager inducted into the Tennessee Women's Golf Hall of Fame, and she earned the honor for winning four straight medalist honors in the Division II state events.

Perhaps her highest honor is earning the 2012 Southeastern Conference Female Athlete of the Year award.

A four-time Academic All-American, she is a three-time SEC women's golf scholar of the year and three-time NGCA Scholar Athlete.

"She has a fabulous sense of humor and she's extremely bright," Baylor coach emeritus King Oehmig said. "She wasn't afraid of winning. She has a great balance in terms of being intense and yet also playful. Balance is great when you're playing golf: Don't care too much and don't care not enough."

Pancake's capacity for caring was tested when her father died.

Her Baylor team was competing in the Myrtle Beach area. The Lady Red Raiders went to South Carolina and back on a private airplane owned by Joe Prebul, whose daughter played on the team.

"It's impressed in my mind," said Oehmig, the coach at the time. "Brooke won the tournament. We were all in the airport."

Then his phone buzzed. So did the phones of other Baylor administrators. With a white lie, as Oehmig recalled, they told the golfers to turn off their cell phones because Air Force One -- with the President aboard -- would be landing soon.

"I was sick on the plane ride back, and Brooke didn't know anything about it," said Oehmig, an Episcopalian minister. "We landed at Lovell Field and I went outside with [the Pancake family], and it was a pretty sad moment.

"The rest of the team, we had prayers and everything right there."

The state tournament was two weeks away, and the biggest event of the regular season was even sooner.

The annual matchups of Baylor against Girls Preparatory School and McCallie followed a few days after Dr. Pancake's death. Oehmig omitted his best player from the girls' lineup, but Brooke participated in a different capacity -- unofficial assistant coach.

"Nobody expected me to be there, and I walked with the girls down the fairway," Pancake said. "I don't know if that was allowed or not, but all the teams had my best interest at heart. Girls from both teams, the guys from McCallie -- almost all gave me hugs."

Baylor teammate Sara Grantham (now Shoffner) was among those providing support.

"It's hard to comprehend anybody going through that," Shoffner said. "A lot of people would not come out of that in a good situation. But Brooke came out and became more successful than people could imagine, and she's gone beyond anybody's expectations."

Her sport helped.

Golf courses, notably Chattanooga Golf and Country Club and Black Creek Club, became oases for Pancake. They were places -- especially the short-range green at CGCC -- where she could go and escape her heartache.

"I would come out here and get away from everything," Pancake said just a few yards away from the practice green where she spent months of hours -- maybe a year -- just chipping and putting.

"When I was here, every stress or thought of being overwhelmed went away because I concentrated on golf," Pancake said. "Everything with the tragedy kept me a lot more humble than maybe I would have been. But I don't know what would have been otherwise."

Black Creek head professional Todd McKitrick became Pancake's swing coach after the father of another former Baylor star, current PGA Tour player Harris English, put the two in touch.

"She was devastated when her father passed," said McKittrick, who is in Wisconsin to help Pancake this week. "At the same rate, she tends to focus when things are tougher. She has an incredible ability to bear down."

Pancake won the state championship a few weeks after her father died. Oehmig gave her the option to be a cheerleader or a participant. She played and won her fourth straight state crown, which is tied for the national high school record.

"I worried about her," said McKittrick, who lost his mother to natural causes when he was 20 years old. "I didn't know her dad one iota, and I worried about her welfare because I wanted to be an asset.

"The summer after her senior year, we really worked on her game and it steamrolled," he said. "I was different from all the other things she had in her life. I was an ear that didn't have an opinion. I wasn't a father figure, but maybe a big brother that she didn't have -- just like my older sister gave me."

He and her many other friends and her family all have helped get Pancake in position to become potentially the best Chattanooga-area female golfer since lifetime amateur Betty Probasco was in her prime.

"Mechanically, she's very good," Potter said. "She hits so many greens in regulation. The more she can convert those shots into birdies the better. We're talking about going from very good to great."

Pancake, now ready to play golf for a living, has entrusted her career and marketing opportunities to highly regarded Sterling Sports Management. J.S. Kang is her agent.

"A lot of people go pro too early," Kang said. "Brooke is intelligent and it's no accident that our top player, Stacy Lewis, graduated from college like Brooke.

"Brooke is ready for the next stage in her golf game and the next stage in her life."

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

Other National Articles

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement

Find a Business

400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.