FAIRWAY DEB: Local golfer will attempt to qualify for US Open in June by Chris Wirszyla, LOL contributor

My wife and I, with our 8-year-old twins, rarely get any time for ourselves. So when an opportunity comes to grab alone-time, we jump on it! We recently headed to Echo Farms Golf Club to walk a quick nine. Or so we thought. When we got there, we were soon stuck behind a couple of groups. The starter told us about a pair ahead. “The woman,” he said, “hit the ball beautifully and had played on the LPGA.” Ever since one of my professors jumped on top of his desk at 8 o’clock in the morning, yelling and shaking his fists, “You have got to get the point I am trying to make!”, I have been a hooked sport sociologist and historian. I was not going to miss a chance to have a conversation with a women’s golf pioneer, such as Debra Rhodes Pinnell.
After she hit her tee shot, we walked and talked. Her playing partner had hit his second shot, so she said she would catch up. Gracefully, she took off jogging down the fairway, pushing her cart ahead of her. I thought to myself, She runs just like my sister—who, at 52, will play any sport, at any time, against anyone—pretty much like me because we love it.
Debby Rhodes Pinnell loves sports also.
Pinnell grew up, the oldest of five, playing all sports. “I could run fast, jump high, and I was quick,” she says. “I was obsessed with sports. Basketball in the fall and winter; track and field in the spring, and tennis and golf in the summer. Dad encouraged us, and when Mom got a set of clubs for Christmas one year, when I was 12, I was hooked.”
They lived next door to the High Meadows Golf and Country Club in Roaring Gap, NC. Outside their front stoop was the fairway, overlooking the mountains. “So there weren’t many people playing,” she quips. “We had chores to do, then played all day, rarely practicing, just playing. This is where I got into the habit of running between shots. It’s something I try to maintain, to test myself and satisfy my conscious.”
Pinnell is 66 and proves what self-actualization is. She runs beautifully and gracefully, and not only thinks she can qualify for the women’s US Open, she believes she has a chance to win it! “I just need to get in, and then anything can happen,” she says. “Golf was an enigma for me. I was trying to use my athleticism to kill the ball, but that didn’t work. You need technique.”
Pinnell enrolled at Wake Forest and played in the first-ever women’s basketball national tournament, called the AIAW (before it became the NCAA tournamant). But golf was her favorite, as she realized she could make a living at it. After graduating in 1974, she went to the LPGA qualifying school, with Pat Bradley and Jan Stevenson, and the following year with Nancy Lopez—all great players for their time. “It was a great time for it,” she says. “Commissioner Ray Volpe was great at promoting women’s golf and also the feminine side of the LPGA.”
She won the NC state championship as an amateur and went on to take junior tournaments. Pinnell made it to the semi-finals of the North South Amateur.
“I entered the US Open as an amateur, but others had more coaching,” Pinnell says. “I am proud to be one of the first women in North Carolina to play in the LPGA (Pam Barnett was before me).”
In her first tournament, she finished eleventh. She led three others and tied for fourth, as her best finish. “I barely kept my card for eight years and ended up losing it in 1982,” she notes. “In 1999 I won the Teaching/Club Pro Championship in Georgia. I qualified to play in the Senior LPGA, but you have to play every year”.
Pinnell’s priorities changed after she had her son—now 26 and a graduate from West Point, class of 2015. Today he flies Blackhawk helicopters. “The most rewarding part of life is being a mother,” Pinnell says. Still, she has her eye on the ball and hopes to be the oldest woman to qualify for the US Open on June 12th at the Governor’s Cup in Chapel Hill.
“It is really hard,” Pinnell says. “I played in 14 US Opens, the last in 1987. These days, there are so many foreign entries. Six or seven times I qualified to play in the LPGA championships in Delaware. You walk into the locker room and more than half the players are from other countries.”
But Pinnell maintains a positive attitude and hopeful outlook for her game, no matter the competitors. “I’m working on ball striking, and putting, and my short game, course and self-management. I am running five times a week, doing strength work and stretching on my own, eating healthy and getting enough sleep. There is no stress in my life. It is important to be active.”
Readers can find out more about Pinnell at www.golfmds.com/DebraPinnell. LOL