A golfer’s comeback that took 20 years, and a Showcase Showdown, to arrive

TAMPA — You get one shot at your dream. That’s the rule.

Whether it meets expectations or not is irrelevant. You play your cards and never look back.

You certainly don’t shelve your dream for 20 years, spend a little time selling the Yellow Pages, spend a little more time partying harder than a 30-year-old should, go back to school to get your master’s, start your own successful PR firm and then pick your dream up where you once left off.

So, who is going to tell Sally Dee?

The former USF golfer, former LPGA Tour player, former USF assistant coach and current Tampa businesswoman is in Portland, Oregon, today to play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open more than two decades after saying farewell to professional golf.

“My friends have been calling saying, ‘You didn’t even tell us you were trying to qualify.’ Yeah, well, I was afraid I might shoot 90,” Dee said. “It’s really warmed my heart to see how supportive everyone has been. Maybe we’re all just getting older, so we know it’s harder to do stuff like this, but I’ve been really humbled by the whole experience.”

To say this is a whim is to minimize everything that preceded it. But it’s hard to think of it in any other way when you consider Dee had to rush out and buy a bunch of new golf outfits to have ready for a week’s worth of televised practice rounds and competition.

Dee, 52, had not given up on golf for good. Just, maybe, for her bank account.

An all-state basketball player growing up in Syracuse, Dee only turned to golf because she had seen Nancy Lopez go off on her record-breaking string of victories in the late 1970s and realized there was a sport out there where women could be professionals.

So, with the WNBA still years away, Dee skipped the basketball opportunities at Temple and Penn State to play golf at USF, where she was a three-time academic All American. What followed, after graduation, was several years of crappy jobs, including mornings as a substitute teacher, while she played on the Futures tour and Asian tour and in winter tournaments.

When she finally did reach the LPGA Tour in 1998, Dee was a long hitter with loads of potential but too many questionable shot decisions. She had five top-10s and a pair of top-5 finishes but never quite found a groove that would keep her on the leaderboard long-term.

“It took me a while to get there; I wasn’t like one of those wonder kids who came out of the womb ready for the tour,” Dee said. “And I did have some success, but I was very inconsistent. They used to call me BC or MC — either ‘Big Check’ or ‘Missed Cut.’ There was no middle ground, and after a while that got frustrating.”

An elbow injury set her back and then, of all things, an appearance on “The Price is Right” changed her career path. Dee was with a couple of other golfers at a taping for the game show and ended up on stage with Bob Barker. By the time she was finished, Dee had won the Showcase Showdown (a truck, a mini camper, a dinette set, a Yellowstone vacation) worth more than $40,000 in 2002.

It wasn’t until she was doing her taxes months later that Dee realized she had cleared as much on “The Price is Right” as she had on the tour that year.

So she set her clubs aside and began a string of forgettable jobs that may have lasted longer than she anticipated. Eventually, she went back to USF and got her MBA before opening up Playbook Public Relations. And for the last decade she’s been growing her business while playing golf recreationally at Buckhorn Springs on Sundays.

She also began working out at the Sukha Club in Tampa, where she discovered cold water plunges followed by the sauna helped her learn to control her breathing and slow her heartbeat in times of stress.

“I always felt like golf was fighting my nature a little bit because I was a great basketball player and the angrier I got on the court, the more adrenaline flowed and the better I played,” Dee said. “With golf, it had the opposite effect. So it’s taken me a little while to mature that way.

“Maybe,” she laughs, “until 52.”

So, yeah, maybe it was a bit of a lark when a friend pointed out that Buckhorn Springs was holding a U.S. Senior Women’s Open qualifier in July. She told virtually no one about entering, and then proceeded to shoot a 75 that safely got her into the Open field.

Soon, the phone calls started pouring in from players she had competed against her 25 years ago and were excited to see her again in Portland. Sue Veasey-Florin, her old college teammate and another former LPGA player, announced she would join Dee in Oregon to be her personal chef for the week.

Has all this excitement got Dee rethinking her premature departure from pro golf?

“No,” she says emphatically. “I was very fortunate that I had supportive parents growing up, and eventually they told me that I was lucky to have lived my dream. Not a lot of people get to do that. But where is this going? And they weren’t wrong.

“I actually love doing what I’m doing now. Maybe, if I feel like I’m playing good, I’ll try (qualifying) again. But this is not something I want to address as a career again. Been there, done that. It’s a tough way to make money. The U.S. Open? That’s fun. It’s the crème de la crème.”