She played here in high school. Doesn’t remember much about it. That was, after all, a decade ago and her hometown is on the other side of the state. Janie Jackson has put together a solid early week in Mobile, opening with a consistent pair of 68s in Q-Series on both courses at the southernmost site of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. She struggled on Saturday, remaining solidly inside the top 70 that will advance to the second week. But as she has said repeatedly, “These eight rounds are a marathon, not a sprint.”
“We're a five-hour drive for me,” Jackson said of the distance from Mobile to her hometown. “But I have played this golf course. It's been a long time. We had a state championship here when I was in high school. So, I’m somewhat familiar with it, but not really, because it's been so long. But it's always nice to play in state.”
There used to be a billboard at the city limits of Huntsville, Alabama. It had a rocket screaming toward space with the words “The Sky is Not the Limit.” Since the 1950s, that has been Huntsville’s calling card. The original Redstone rocket that propelled Alan Shepard into space was built in Huntsville. So were all the Apollo rockets that put Americans on the moon, along with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. What most people don’t realize about NASA is that while the missions are launched in Florida and controlled out of Houston, America’s most famous spaceships were built in Huntsville. Raytheon and Thiokol are still there. And the library downtown is named after Warner von Braun.
Jackson wasn’t born during NASA’s heyday in her hometown. But the city’s motto still resonates with the 27-year-old, even though she now lives in Arizona, a move she made strictly based on golf. She has told all her friends that now there are no excuses during the off-season because the weather is perfect. She also works hard on her body. Her friend Ryann O’Toole, who was Jackson’s partner this year at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, has helped with a workout regimen. After her second 68 on Friday in Mobile, Jackson went straight to the gym, a discipline that has evolved over time.
“She had hip surgery when I was in college and has struggled with a shoulder injury,” Cheyenne Knight told me over the phone.
Knight went to the University of Alabama with Jackson and the two remain best friends. They play a lot of practice rounds together when both are in LPGA fields. But Knight also sees a different player in her friend than in years past. For starters, according to Knight, Jackson “is making sure her body is healthy throughout the season because she generates so much speed.”
“Janie is one of the best ball-strikers I’ve ever met,” Knight said. “She has sometimes struggled with her short game. And because of that, it’s taken her a while to gain confidence. In the past, she hasn’t always known how she was going to approach those shots around the greens. She has worked hard on those shots. Now she can take advantage of her length. And she’s become a really good putter.
“She’s experimented with different clubs, being creative, opening the face and finding the bounce, not just hitting every shot with a straight-faced (lob wedge) all the time. Now she can hit a bump-and-run and has learned what her go-to shot is depending on what’s needed and what the lie dictates.”
Jackson is silly long. She would be near the top of the driving-distance stats with a full season of starts on the LPGA Tour. But unlike the PGA Tour where a direct correlation can be drawn between length and earnings, some of the longest players in the women’s game, including Anne van Dam and Bianca Pagdanganan, find themselves back at Q-Series this year.
“Well, (length) doesn't much matter unless it goes straight,” Jackson said in Mobile. “I made some good changes with my coach over the last six weeks or so, so I feel confident over the ball. (Being long) definitely has its advantages on the par-5s. I was able to get a couple of them in two. But it doesn't matter unless you're hitting it straight, unless you can capitalize around the greens. But it does work to my advantage to have some shorter clubs in.
“It mainly feels nice just because I haven't played a competitive round in six weeks, so it's nice to sort of see the work that I put in over the six-week break come to life. It's a marathon, a really long two weeks. But I'm happy with where my game is, so just trying to keep playing steady golf.”
Steadiness might be the biggest change and the best asset in Jackson’s game.
“I played with her at the KPMG in Atlanta and I told her, ‘You played awesome,’” Knight said. “She has the game to play on the LPGA. She won on the Symetra Tour this year, so there’s no doubt that she has what it takes. I’ve played a lot with her and I’ve seen her develop. I’ve seen her play really well and she definitely has the ‘it’ factor to make it.”
Others see a limitless sky for Jackson. The question is: does she see it for herself?
“It would be a lot of fun to be able to be out there full-time and playing with the people that I played with in college and people that I played with growing up,” Jackson said of her ultimate goal. “I got a little sprinkle, a little taste of the LPGA this past year playing a few events, and it was fun to be out there and compete with some of my friends from growing up.
“I've been out of college for five years,” she said. “So, I just feel like I know that I'm capable. Maybe it's taken me a little bit longer than it's taken some of the others, but I still believe in myself. I believe in my game. And I'm just staying patient with myself. That's what I'm going to keep doing.”