LPGA Tour rookie Reilley Rankin counts among her most valuable sports memorabilia possessions a Ben Hogan signature on an old check. Rankin learned all about Hogan's recovery from a career-threatening automobile accident when she was rehabilitating from injuries that very nearly dashed her golfing dreams.
Five years after suffering a broken back and sternum when she and a few college friends jumped off a 67-foot cliff into an Alabama lake, Rankin shot a 4-under-par 67 Saturday to move within two shots of defending champion Annika Sorenstam's leading score of 7-under 135 after two rounds of the LPGA Championship at DuPont Country Club.
Rankin, 25, said earlier this week that many others have leapt off Chimney Rock at Lake Martin over the years, but none has met the same fate she experienced June 4, 1999. A native of Hilton Head Island, S.C., she was out of action for 18 months after doctors initially told her she might never walk again, let alone play tournament golf. Entering Sunday's third and fourth rounds, she is in contention at the second major championship of the LPGA season.
But she will have to catch Sorenstam, who had birdie putts on every hole and made a run to the top of the leader board with five birdies in the first seven holes of her back nine. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster (66), a two-time winner of this tournament, and first-round leader Jennifer Rosales (70) of the Philippines were tied for second at 6-under 136 on a sun-splashed day that followed Friday's rainout.
Several other big-time players are also within striking distance. Grace Park, who won the season's first major at the Kraft Nabisco in March, was at 4-under 138 after her 70 on Saturday. And 22-year-old Mexican sensation Lorena Ochoa, last season's rookie of the year, posted a 67 -- 138 that left her three behind Sorenstam as well.
But Rankin almost surely will be the crowd's sentimental favorite Sunday if she can stay in contention. She has never had a better 36-hole start this season after earning her place on the tour by finishing fifth on the Futures Tour money list last year, and she has missed the cut in three of her last four events, with only one top-10 finish.
Still, her performance during the first two rounds here is no more remarkable than her comeback from her cliff-diving disaster.
"First they said I might not walk and probably won't ever play," Rankin recalled today. "When I got out of the hospital and went to a doctor at home, he said, 'You'll probably never play golf again,' and then I kind of looked at him. He said, 'If you do, you're going to have to add six, seven, eight shots to your game.'
"I couldn't walk, but I almost ran out of that doctor's office. It made me really mad. Obviously, they can help us, but I don't think they can ever predict somebody's ability or determination with any situation. They don't know somebody's mind or mind-set. He never saw me play golf to begin with."
Rankin was a well-known star in the national junior ranks as a teenager and was the NCAA and Southeastern Conference freshman of the year in her first season at the University of Georgia in 1997. After her 18-month rehabilitation, she came back and helped Georgia win the 2001 NCAA women's championship.
Rankin wiped tears from her eyes this afternoon when she recalled playing in her first tournament after the accident. It was a collegiate event in Hilton Head, and a huge contingent of family and friends was there to watch.
She wasn't sure what her score was that day -- "73 or 76; my first nine holes I shot 1 under, and that was neat.
"I had a lot of emotions, and I had to use a pull cart," she said. "I didn't like that too much. But it was like a dream come true. Then I played two more events and they said no more, and I had to go back to rehab. They had let me go a little too soon, but I won't ever forget it."
Rankin said she never had any doubts she would make a full recovery. She began using mental visualization techniques to get herself through the tedium of the rehabilitation process.
"I had to walk on a treadmill or in a pool and that was really boring," she said. "So I pretended I was playing golf."
And she learned about Hogan, who won the 1950 U.S. Open not far from here at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., 16 months after a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus left him with a broken collarbone, broken rib, a double fracture of the pelvis and a broken ankle.
Rankin has had no lingering effects from her injuries, and said she's actually swinging the club better than before she was hurt.
"The way I look at it, it's the best thing I've ever gone through," she said. "It seems backwards, but I grew a lot from it. I just never looked back. The first day in rehab, I couldn't lift my arms above my head; that was probably four or five months after the accident. But it was fun to see the progress. . . . It felt like I was still working like if I was still playing."
Rankin and everyone else in the field will have a tough 36-hole walk Sunday, but she said today after her five-birdie, one-bogey round that the week already has been a success as she competes in the first major of her career.
"Every step means a lot to me, no matter what tournament it is," she said. "Or if I'm walking somewhere besides on the golf course. I'm grateful for it."