DAYTONA BEACH, Fla - When Rosie Jones announced her captain’s picks for the 2011 Solheim Cup, the two names out of her mouth: Ryann O’Toole and Vicky Hurst. At the time, O’Toole was a promising rookie that had just finished in the top 10 in two of her last three tournaments, one being a ninth-place finish at the U.S. Women’s Open. Hurst was a promising three-year player with three consecutive top-45 finishes on the money list. Both were rising stars in the American game, surefire future multiple Solheim Cup members.
Only the game, and their bodies had minds of their own. If there was a peak in their young careers, that Solheim Cup was it, and their hope is that this week is the valley, the place they never have to come back to: LPGA’s Final Qualifying Tournament.
Injuries have brought them here, a place that seemed unimaginable three years ago. O’Toole’s was an injury in 2012 – a spondylolisthesis of her L5, in other words a small fracture in her lower back. Hers came from overuse and likely won’t ever heal. Lance Armstrong has it, and one can work around it. But O’Toole never really allowed herself time to do that and it came to a head early this year. She changed coaches and realizes she can’t swing the same way she always has anymore. She can’t practice the way she used to. She can’t lift or work out anymore the way she used to. Looking back on it, she wishes she had just taken a medical and rehab it but that’s water under the bridge at this point, and it has been a process working back.
“I definitely had to learn the term overuse. I was going hard on the golf course, going hard with the travel and in the gym, and I think my body said we’ve had enough. I think once I got through that and figured out a routine and method that has kept me injury free, that seems to have calmed it down,” O’Toole said. “But I think that triggered a lot of inconsistent play. Fixing things in my golf swing that were causing the injury.”
Hurst’s situation is similar, albeit with different timing. She piled on another impressive finish in 2012 after the Solheim Cup, landing 35th on the money list with three top-10s. But late that year is when the pain started. It gradually got worse and bothered her throughout 2013, falling all the way to 74th on the money list. She had two cysts in her wrist and a tear of her triangular fibrocartilage complex, the area that keeps the forearm bones stable when the hand grasps or the forearm rotates. In other words, a nightmare for a golfer.
But Hurst was admittedly stubborn and refused to shut it down. She thought a month-long break in the offseason between 2013 and 2014 would be enough. It wasn’t, but it wasn’t broken and she didn’t need surgery so she powered on. In the 12 events she played in 2014, she only made the cut in her opening event of the year and finally was forced to withdraw at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G. She shut it down, got an injection for the inflammation and did lots of physical therapy to get it back right. The pain’s gone from a nine to a two she says, but she’s still working through it.
“Even though I was playing terrible and I had a lot of pain, I was just like, ‘Screw it, just go play,’” she said.
Hurst finds herself playing in her first competitive golf event in five month this week at the LPGA’s Final Qualifying Tournament to ensure she’ll have status next season when her medical exemption events are expired. And She’s always one of the first players mentioned when competitors are asked who they are surprised to see at Q-School.
O’Toole said when she saw her, she said: “Stranger, where have you been?” Her first two rounds have been an up-and-down affair – a 70 the first day followed by an 80 in round two – but that’s to be expected with the rust she’s trying to work off during arguably the greatest pressure cooker in the game.
“Golf is a crazy game and a humbling game, that’s for sure. You can’t ever get too big headed out here. If you do, golf will show you what it’s all about,” she said.
Both Hurst and O’Toole have had to dial back the practice since returning and make their routines more efficient to avoid overuse. However, neither ever considered calling it quits. More than the pain, the injury drove the competitor in them insane. It was hard not to bring what happened on the golf course into their life off of the golf course. As O’Toole put it, “It’s like any job, when work’s not good, it’s hard not to bring it home.”
“The hardest part was just not performing. The hardest thing that I hated was missing a cut and having to stick around. It was almost like you had to bite down and bear it and go practice on the weekend when other people were playing,” O’Toole said. “As a competitor and athlete, that’s the worst. It was like sitting the bench and you did it to yourself.”
No time on the bench could affect their confidence, though. O’Toole’s goal and vision remains the same as the day she entered the Tour and the same as her week on the U.S. Solheim Cup: Win and get the snowball rolling to eventually get to No. 1 in the world.
“Not once have I ever thought this isn’t for me, I’m not supposed to be No. 1. We all have different roads. You can’t look at it and go well if you weren’t the top junior or college player and didn’t come out your rookie year and dominate like Lydia Ko, then you’re not supposed to be No. 1,” O’Toole said. “No that isn’t it, everyone has their point and who is to say mine is not coming?”
O’Toole’s game has looked to be rounding back into form this week with rounds of 67 and 71 to open, and she cites a season’s worth of examples that her and Hurst can both get back to where they came from. Christina Kim battled back through depression and a back injury to win for her first time in nine years in 2014. Michelle Wie, the prodigy with the otherworldly early expectations, breaks through for her first major at 24. Tiffany Joh finished 41st on the money list as a rookie in 2011 with a runner-up finish to her credit but was back in Qualifying School in 2013. She earned her card and rebounded in 2014 with a 67th place finish on the money list.
Ultimately, both know golf’s an individual game and they have to make their own story. They’re starting to write that comeback story this week.
“Injury sucks, doesn’t matter where it is or what it is or how bad it is. It’s definitely more of a challenge to work through an injury more than anything else,” Hurst said. “Ryann’s such a talented player, so am I, so I think through time, doesn’t matter what happens, we’ll both be back out there.”
Maybe even at a Solheim Cup.