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Keeping Her Eye on the Ball

Last Christmas was exceptional for Brooke Pancake on both ends of the spectrum. On one hand, she was unwrapping presents in a Staybridge Suites after a fire gutted her childhood home. On the other, she received word she would represent the United States on the Curtis Cup team — a highlight of her career.

“I was so honored,” recalls the 22-year-old national champion. “It was such a confidence booster and helped me determine to keep pursuing golf as a future.” While she held the best record of anyone on the American team, Pancake still says the call took her by surprise.

As long as I’ve known her she’s never made a grade below an ‘A,’” says high school coach King Oehmig. “She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s tough and very poised. I’ve always been amazed at her poise, even as a youngster. She’s pretty unflappable.”

She’s also one heck of a golfer. Finishing her college career ranked fifth in the nation, she sank a four-and-a-half foot putt to clinch the first women’s golf national championship for the University of Alabama. As a college freshman she led the nation in driving accuracy at 92 percent — better than anyone in the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Champions Tour or in NCAA men’s golf — and she left college one of the most decorated female golfers in Crimson Tide history. While at Baylor School, Pancake dominated women’s high school golf, winning the Tennessee State High School Championship four straight years and setting the 18- and 36-hole scoring records in the tournament.

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AP Photo/Scott A. Miller

Brooke Pancake

Her awards are almost too lengthy to list, but some highlights include SEC Female Athlete of the Year, three-time All-American, three-time SEC Women's Golf Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Capital One Academic All-American. She was also nominated for the 22nd annual NCAA Woman of the Year award, an honor only 428 other female collegiate athletes can claim.

But life off the course is really what sets Pancake apart. The fact that she even went to college is somewhat of a rarity, considering a 15-year-old just won the Canadian Women’s Open. But Pancake headed to Tuscaloosa less than a year after losing her father, Dr. Bruce Pancake.

And her academic record is almost as impressive as her athletic one, graduating with a 4.0 and marketing degree. On top of all that, she found time to serve on the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and volunteer at an elder daycare center. “I originally had to do the volunteer work for a class and I really grew to love some of the elders there,” she explains. “No one would really come visit them and they just wanted someone to talk to. I felt bad kind of deserting them so I made it a ritual to visit a few times a week.”

Recently Pancake signed with Sterling Sports Management, one of the two largest LPGA agencies in the world. They only take one client per year. Four years ago their new recruit was a woman named Stacy Lewis, now the number two player in the world.

Sterling has equal expectations for Pancake. “I think she’s going to become a top-tier LPGA player,” says her agent, J.S. Kang. “It doesn’t always happen quickly; it’s a maturation process. Competition in the LPGA is higher and the courses are tougher, so you have to play at that level, with those people, on those courses to get as good as they are. But I think she’s got not only the skills but the hunger to be one of the best players.”

First, she’ll have to obtain her LPGA status. This month she’ll compete in the second round of Qualifying School in Florida. The real pressure begins in late November during the third and final round, when only the top 30 or so are awarded LPGA cards. Things are looking good so far. Pancake not only qualified in Round 1 by making it into the top 60, she tied for third place.

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PHOTO: Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Brooke Pancake is the only Chattanooga native to compete in the Curtis Cup

“There’s so much involved that it’s pretty nerve wracking, but I feel like hard work pays off,” she says as she makes the drive back from Tuscaloosa to Chattanooga. She’ll have a few days to recuperate with family before hitting the road again, a routine that will continue until the end of the year. Turning pro this year, Pancake has not only had to adjust to a grueling schedule but also leaving the comfort of traveling with a team and coach. Her grandfather Jimbo Eakin, who taught her the game at age 8, hardly missed a tournament in high school and college. But the LPGA is a global tour, with players generally competing in 12 to 13 countries each year (compared to three or four for the PGA).

In a tour dominated by foreigners, Pancake stands out with her long blonde hair and All-American looks. But she’s got several other attributes that make her highly marketable. “One, she’s got a great name — it’s very memorable and makes her stand out,” explains Kang. “She also has a great look and great personality to go with it, so when you combine those it draws people to you. Whether that’s sponsors or fans, it’s a good thing for ladies golf.”

While the significant sponsorships probably won’t surface until she obtains her LPGA status, companies like Ralph Lauren are already starting to align themselves with her.

Pancake has already been able to play a few LPGA tournaments thanks to sponsor exemptions, including the U.S. Women’s Open. Later this year she plans to compete in Taiwan, where women’s golf is even more popular than men’s. That means a lot considering the typical purse for an LPGA event is $1 million compared to nearly $6 million for men.

Combine lower prize money and world travel and it can be tough to make a living as a woman golfer. Pancake begins her career with eyes wide open, handling the challenges with her characteristic cool headedness. “It can be a lonely hard lifestyle, but I approach it as a blessing,” she says. “I’m going to keep playing and promoting it as best I can and if it works out, great. If it doesn’t, then I’ll try to do something else and give it 100 percent.”

Things seem headed in the right direction, with average LPGA prize money per event doubling in the past decade. And players like Pancake make many in the game optimistic. “Players like Brooke, if you combine performance with her personality and her look and her heart, then it stands to reason that she will raise the game and the LPGA, allowing a higher level of commercial success to follow,” says Kang. “People like Brooke are good for the game. She’s the kind of person you want to cheer for.”