After seriously contemplating retirement, Lee-Anne Pace, has decided to play on for one more year, writes KEN BORLAND.
Scoring an albatross on the famous 9th hole at Gary Player Country Club should probably get you a free night in the penthouse suite at The Palace. But for Lee-Anne Pace it was followed by a dash to OR Tambo Airport through a typical Highveld summer thunderstorm.
Pace was eager to get back to her beloved Western Cape after her sensational birdie-albatross finish at the SuperSport Ladies Challenge at Sun City that lifted her into fifth place and third in the Investec Order of Merit. That was helped, too, by her five-stroke victory at the Cape Town Ladies Open at King David Mowbray Golf Club the previous week.
She has won her last three Cape Town Opens – in 2016, 2018 and 2020 – but her 25th career title was more significant than many others all over the world. It was her first victory since winning this tournament at Royal Cape Golf Club in 2018 and it came at a time when talk of her retirement from professional golf was rife.
Pace endured a miserable time on the LPGA Tour in the US in 2019, missing the cut at half her tournaments as she battled debilitating pain and stiffness. She was diagnosed with Maignes Syndrome, a spinal disorder which causes pain to radiate along the nerves, which is hardly compatible with playing professional golf. Surgery was suggested but, with her 39th birthday due on 15 February, she seriously considered retirement.
But the level of golf she has produced in the 2020 Sunshine Ladies Tour suggested she was still one of South Africa’s best golfers and she has targeted another year on the Ladies European Tour.
‘I was supposed to retire and I’m also meant to try to have a baby, but I decided to play for one more year. It will be nice to be back in Europe, it’s way more relaxing and I think a lot of my problems were due to the travel in the US. In Europe you don’t have so far to travel and I have a lovely base in southern France.
‘My back was really sore last year but I’ve been having good physio back home. There’s nothing they can do about the syndrome, so I just have to manage it. They’ve also made some changes to the European Qualifying School this year, so there’s going to be a lot of young blood and enthusiastic new golfers playing, which makes it worth staying on for a bit,’ Pace told Compleat Golfer while waiting for her flight back to Cape Town.
When she withdrew from the Canadian Women’s Open last August, her hip displacement was so bad that her left
leg was five centimetres ‘longer’ than her right. Considering how bad the wear and tear on her body has been after playing overseas since 2007, her resurgence in 2020 has been amazing.
‘I’ve always had problems with my hips,’ Pace said. ‘They are kind of inverted. When I get stiff in that area, my left leg tends to go longer than my right, and that pulls the left side of my back out of place, and it goes into spasms. I think it’s about getting older.’
It also shows the power of the mind, the value of experience and how champions like her never forget how to win once they are thrust back into contention again.
‘I didn’t play well on the first day of the Cape Town Ladies Open, shooting just level par, but I told myself I must just hang in there. I didn’t really know what to expect from my game because I’d probably only played four competitive rounds in the previous six months.
‘But then it all seemed to come back to me once I was in contention. My ball striking got better, I got on a run, I was kind of in the zone and the putts started dropping. It’s just always very special for me to play in the Cape, in front of my friends and family, and I get a lot of support,’ Pace said.
Things did not quite click into place as well at Sun City, but Pace showed one is never too old to learn.
‘I love playing in the Cape and this is one of my favourite times of the year with the Cape Town Open, DiData and the SA Open all being played there. I don’t quite feel so much at home up in Gauteng, adding 10 metres to your shots because of altitude and the grass is quite different too. But I’ve finally figured out that it makes you hit such high balls so I’ve got to grip down,’ Pace laughed.
She put her newfound knowledge to great use on the final hole of the SuperSport Ladies Challenge, when she sank her second shot, a 4-iron from 174m on to the famous island green that is usually the 9th hole at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.
‘It was the perfect yardage and it bounced once or twice before going in. It’s my first albatross!’ Pace said.
With 15 South African titles to her name, nine wins on the European Tour and one in the US, Pace has always been a fierce competitor when the stakes are high. Although, one should probably not mention stakes because she once disqualified herself from the Women’s PGA Championship, after hitting her wedge on one in frustration, noticing only after she had used it again that she had damaged the hosel, thereby illegally altering the club.
Pace called an official to discuss what happened. Not long into the conversation, Rule 4.3b came up, which clearly states that a club damaged during a stipulated round other than in the normal course of play cannot be subsequently used or replaced. The penalty for breaking the rules is swift and severe: disqualification.
The official told Pace she could continue to play the round and let the committee look at the club afterwards. However, she understood what their ultimate decision would likely be and chose to stop playing.
But few would bet against Pace, battle-hardened and wise, returning to the Majors by winning the SA Women’s Open
at Westlake Golf Club from 12-14 March, which would give her automatic exemption into the Women’s British Open and the Evian Championship.
*Ed’s note: The SA Women’s Open was won by Alice Hewson, Pace finished T18 and six strokes back