Ft. Myers, Fla. - There’s seemingly no barrier that Cheryl Grigg is unwilling or unable to conquer.
So if an occasional eyebrow furled when the Sea Island, Ga., resident picked off Diane Lang of Jamaica in 20 holes in Tuesday morning’s round of 32 at the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, perhaps placing it in the 'upset' category is only a useless label placed on a match that produced a loser in name only.
Grigg was radiating confidence with each passing shot against Lang, a three-time Senior Women’s Amateur champion. Truth be told, Grigg was so accurate that she could have spent an eight-hole stretch from Nos. 5-12 polishing a sprinkler-head manufacturer’s insignia off her golf ball.
Instead, she used the time to hit every green in regulation and owned a 3-up lead after 11 holes by grinding out pars and playing that stretch in one under on Fiddlesticks’ dramatic Long Mean course, where it’s difficult to get shots close to the hole. Lang answered by winning Nos. 11, 13 and 15 to square the match, completing the surge by executing a delicate up and down from just off the putting surface.
Thereafter, when Grigg badly mis-hit her second shot into the water at the par-4 16th to trail for the first time since the third hole, Lang seemed to take control of the momentum – and the match – even with only a 1-up lead.
Life has taught Grigg to be resilient, though, and she made a characteristic grit-your-teeth birdie at the par-3 17th, playing an 8-iron across the water before sinking a 22-footer for birdie to square the match.
After two-putting for par from 50 feet left of the hole at No. 18, it was hard to tell who was feeling the energy of the encounter more: Grigg or her caddie, Joe Wilk, whom she picked up on a whim during a Thursday practice round.
Talk about stress, said Wilk while walking off the 18th green. This is supposed to be fun for me.
Lang made a gutsy 22-footer for par at the 19th hole to continue the match, but somehow it seemed Grigg had done too much to lose, and won the next hole after her opponent found the water hazard to the left off the tee. Grigg credited the victory to a can-do mindset.
My swing felt good. I felt like I was hitting good shots and I was thinking well out there, she said. I felt like I could win today.
It’s a safe bet that those who know Grigg won’t be surprised that she came back to shine after losing a lead. Life has taught her to confront her fears head-on and to use them to help form her ambitions.
In 1988, her husband, John Popa, then the head golf professional at Sea Island Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., was killed in a plane crash in Jacksonville, Fla., that also claimed the lives of Sea Island professionals Davis Love Jr. - the late father of Davis Love III - and Jimmy Hodges.
Cheryl Wrede and John Popa met when he was an assistant professional in California. One day, they watched a Los Angeles Lakers game and had a putting contest after work, with the loser having to pay the toll over the Coronado Bridge. Grigg lost, but they both gained. Their journey eventually took the couple to Sea Island, where John was named the resort’s assistant professional and the two married.
Then, on Nov. 13, 1988, while Cheryl was knitting a sweater for one of the couple’s children, a Sea Island employee arrived in the middle of the night to break the news to her that something had gone terribly wrong. Grigg knew that a 20-minute flight had changed her life forever.
The natural temptation of such a tragedy would seem to be to hide out, get as far away from southern Georgia as possible and shield oneself from the memories of the event. In other words, to give up when you had a big lead and now, like that, you’re down. In the ensuing months, Grigg was understandably incapable of doing a lot of things, including playing golf.
Ultimately though, Grigg used the experience to strengthen her soul, formed an even tighter bond with the surrounding community and delved into the upbringing of two young children, J. Michael and Kacee, this time as a single mother. Even with that, she eschewed the opportunity to return to the comforts of her native Oregon and never left Sea Island.
I felt like I had such a tie there and a bond in the friends that I made, Grigg said. It felt like they wanted me to stay and the people took care of me. The benefits they provided me, both, golf-wise and emotionally, were great. It took a little while to get back out on the golf course, but I had a great support community there, and it was such the right move to stay. It’s a great village.
In 1998, Grigg married manufacturing magnate Tucker Grigg, who had lost his wife to cancer. And she’s immersed herself in the game at the Golf Learning Center at Sea Island, refining her swing with the help of her instructor, Gale Peterson.
The expansive facility is what John always dreamt of as a teacher, and helping to plan it was a large contribution in his service to the game. At Sea Island’s Golf Learning Center, the same place that has helped transform her game, a plaque pays tribute to the three professionals.
These days, her hours of practice there undoubtedly played a role in Grigg making her best showing at the Senior Women’s Amateur in four starts.
She has started to play more competitive golf over the past four years, including competing in the North & South Senior Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst.
Time really does help a lot and it heals a lot of things, Grigg says. I had a lot of great friends who said, ‘OK, come one, Cheryl, let’s go play,’ and I did.
Grigg fell in the round of 16 to Patty Moore of Charlotte, N.C., 2 up, but be assured that she will use the 38-hole day to achieve future successes. After winning three matches, her run at the Senior Women’s Amateur is done, but Grigg’s climb is just gaining steam.
To get some positive thoughts and then to actually pull it off [Monday] and [Tuesday] has been amazing, Grigg said. I kind of feel like, ‘I played with the big dogs and played pretty well.’ I feel good about myself, and I’ll take that forward.
Andrew Blair is the Director of Communications for the Virginia State Golf Association.