You and your buddy are on a golfing vacation, one you've waited months for. You're headed for one of those "must play" courses that you've been dying to attack. Made your tee times weeks ago, just to make sure. You check in at the pro shop and they tell you you're paired with a husband and wife couple from St. Louis. Your eyes roll back as you think of playing 18 holes with the couple; and what you imagine will probably be a long day.
You reluctantly head to the first tee to meet your playing partners. After the introductions - they appear nice enough, and she's even dressed like she knows something about the game - you head to the blue tees and knock one out there about 240. Your buddy does about the same and then the husband hits, and it too finds the fairway, a little short of your drive. As you begin to head for the cart to wait at the ladies tee you do a double take. The wife is also teeing it up at the blues! You begin to holler to her, thinking she may not know that she can hit further ahead, when she begins her rhythmic backswing, followed by the graceful and powerful downswing which launches the ball some 20 yards past yours, with a slight draw, dead center, right down the sprinklers.
The "nice shot" almost gets caught in your throat as you head for your ball. Your approach is a little short and left, and none of the men find the putting surface. The lady strokes a burner that rises quickly and, hitting its peak falls to earth ten feet from the flag. While the men struggle for par - which only one makes - she lips out for birdie and taps in for four. Walking off the green you comment to her husband, "Your wife plays a nice game. What does she do?" To which he replies, "Yeah she does. She's a school teacher."
This has happened more than once to Andy and Ellen Port on their vacation. They never add "...oh, and she's a two time US Women's Mid-Am Champion". They just continue the round, enjoying the company that presents itself. Well, its time for a slight change. It's now "three time US Women's Mid-Amateur Champion"!
Yes, life's pretty good at the Port home these days. Andy, a commercial real estate broker, is doing quite well, thank you, and Ellen, these days teaching part time at John Burroughs since Katie was born a year ago, just came off a terrific summer. And three year old Drew is adjusting to his sister just fine.
Ellen is one of those special people. Not because of what she's done, that just affirms her status. She's special because she does it with a competitive drive that exhausts her opponents, while at the same time a grace and charm that brings honor to the match and to the competition. And she's special because she does it about as well as anyone ever has. Winning the Mid-Am in 1995 and 1996 were both very special events. But to Ellen, winning four years later, after her two children were born, after the demands of parenting, and after a few bouts of self-doubt about her ability to compete once again at the National level crept in, was especially satisfying. Her third USGA victory put her into some very special company. Only 18 ladies, including Ellen, have ever won 3 or more USGA events, and another twelve men also accomplished this heroic feat, including just a few names most golfers will recognize; Hogan, Jones, Inkster, Irwin, Collett, Travis, Stirling, Nicklaus, Woods, Carner, Zaharias, Anderson, Travers, Hoyt, Curtis, Rawls and Wright. Is her accomplishment beginning to sink in?
Actually the Mid-Am was just the icing on an already very delicious cake in 2000. Ellen took the Women's Metro title and the Missouri State crown. She made the semi-finals at the North & South at Pinehurst and the second round at the Women's Western Amateur. She played in the Michelob Light Classic at Fox Run, and was in contention following her opening round. She was also Medalist at the Mid-Am, something she had never done previously. It was a very special season indeed.
Given all this you'd think she couldn't wait to get out again. Play and practice all winter, whenever possible. You couldn't be more wrong. She put the sticks away and won't take them out until spring, except maybe for a trip now and then to the practice range, weather permitting.
"It would be tough to walk away from the competition", Ellen confided, "but if I had to I could. I know the day will come shortly when my life will revolve more around my kids activities than around golf, so I'm prepared to accept that." That collective sigh of relief you heard was Ladies throughout the land hoping that day will come sooner than later.
How does one explain someone like Mrs. Port? Didn't get serious about golf until she was in her mid-20's. Didn't come up through the junior ranks. Didn't even know what the Curtis Cup was until Terry Houser told her just a few years ago? In her first tournament she put two OB on her opening hole at the old Bahnfyre! Fifteen years later she's been on two Curtis Cup teams and is one of the best in the land!
"Ellen is just a very good natural athlete" notes husband Andy. "She played all sports in high school, track, basketball, tennis and swimming. She has great hand-eye coordination and she has that competitive drive that comes from competing all her life."
However, Ellen believes she knows where her ability truly comes from, so she looks at it a little differently, "I believe I've been blessed by God. He's given me a lot of talent and I'm very thankful. The skills I possess have allowed me to experience a great deal of success. All I'm trying to do is be the best I can. I loved the movie 'Chariots of Fire' and the part about Eric Liddel. It's sort of the way I feel at times! When I do my best I'm returning some of my blessings to God."
With that she has to be a mother and wipe Katie's nose - she has a cold - while Andy chases after Drew who would like a little more attention than he's gotten the past fifteen minutes! Indeed, golf does take a back seat to the joys of being a parent!
Winning a national title has memories that will last a lifetime. Ellen recalls a putt in the 1994 Trans-Miss against Sarah Ingram, this was her first national title, a thirty-footer on the first extra hole for the win. Then there was a 2-iron into the wind at Essex in the1995 Mid-Am that landed 10 feet from the pin that helped card a much-needed par. Later, in her semifinal match, she opened birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie. And you thought only the guy's were good!
But she's also improved with age, not relying just on her physical talents. In '95 she won with outstanding putting, as she seemed to make everything she had to in each match. In '96 it was a combination of outstanding iron play and putting that vaulted her to the title. This year it was good course management. "I put the ball at the right spot on the greens. Didn't always pull out the driver; played a lot of fairway woods off the tee. Just kept patient and didn't try to force a lot of shots."
The match at Big Canyon CC is set to begin. Her opponent, Anna Schultz of Texas, has scored some big wins of her own along the way, including a win over Carole Semple Thompson. Both players are nervous. Ellen's opening tee shot is a real gem. It hits a tree. Down one. Fight back the rest of the front and at the end of nine you're all square. Birdie the 12th to go one-up, then take the 13th and 15th with pars to go three-up with three to play. Dormie! You're walking up the fairway and what are you thinking. "I didn't want to play the 17th or 18th holes at Big Canyon. They're real tough and anything could happen. I wanted to end it on sixteen. I made a nice lag putt and then tapped-in for par to win." End of story, 3 & 2! Oh, by the way, in all her matches that week, she only had to play those last two holes once, in the semi-finals when she won on the 19th hole. She won her other matches 4&3, 4&3, 9&7 and 7&6. Talk about dominating the field!
But it hasn't always been easy, nor was it always pretty. In the mid-80's she and Andy would play with friends and most could see she had talent, though it was still work-in-progress. Someone made a call and Ellen first went to Phil Hewitt at Westborough for some guidance. She made progress quickly and being a hard worker, would frequent Sunset Hills range to practice her new-found love, and where she met Terry Houser. She worked with both men, and they each contributed to her early success. As she began to compete, she heard the name Hank Haney more and more from those at the national level. She picked up the phone and wrangled herself a lesson. Wondering if she could be competitive at that level, with more and more practice, she soon found herself asking if she could win! Haney gave her the encouragement she needed to believe that she could.
Her swing is somewhat mechanical, at least in practice. "I check my swing plane all the time. I try to make certain I'm cocking my wrists when I should be, that the clubhead is where it should be. I work real hard in practice on the mechanics. Then when I get to the tournaments, I usually revert to the more mental side of the game. I really love Bob Rotella and his book; 'Golf is not a Game of Perfect'. It's all about visualization. That's what I focus on in tournaments, visualizing the shot and trusting my swing."
The swing and her mental attitude have allowed her to stay focused on the task at hand; even when it would seem all is lost. "At the '94 Curtis Cup I got down early in my first match, then battled back to win 3&2." Drawing the same player in her next singles match, the confidence gained previously lit a fire in her. She birdied three of the first four holes and coasted to a 7& 5 win.
What goals does she have now? "I'd love to win the Amateur, that would be a great thrill. And being selected to another Curtis Cup team would be a great honor. There's nothing quite like playing for your country." But Ellen is not likely to make golf a higher priority that it is today. She focuses on six events each summer, that's it. Usually they're the Women's Western Amateur and the North & South. Then the main area events, the Metro and State. Finally the US Amateur and the Mid-Am. She may play in a few more in town, if there's no significant conflict, but she'll continue to focus on "her majors".
If more honors come her way, you believe she wouldn't handle them any different that she has thus far. Like many successful players, she has her priorities in place and doesn't seem to forget what's really important in life.
So if you happen to meet the Ports on the first tee, be sure to check your ego at the pro shop. Instead of worrying about the round, prepare to enjoy it, while at the same time watching one of the best players ever-to-play-the-game, enjoy hers!
© Copyright Jim Healey November 12, 2000