By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (August 25). When Mercedese (Ellie) Large’s mother, Dolores, first suggested the idea of playing golf, Ellie laughed out loud. “I had no interest in golf – it never even crossed my mind,” said Large, 56, who was an All-America lacrosse player at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “I thought, why would you ever want to do that when there is something really important to do, like tennis or skiing?”
Now, the game she once viewed with derision – along with the numerous friends she has made playing it over nearly 30 years – is helping her through a very difficult time.
Large, who was born Mercedese Elnora Roane (her first and middle names are passed on from her grandmothers) and grew up in Hartford, Conn., is competing in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship for the third consecutive year and hoping to make match play for the first time. In 2017, she missed by 12 strokes and last year she missed by six. But her goal this week at Cedar Rapids Country Club is less lofty than breaking into the top 64.
“I ask people about trying to qualify for an event like this, and they say that maybe they’ll try when their game is better,” said Large. “And I joke with them – I say, your game will never be better. It won’t get better until you go out and do these things. I played in the Connecticut Women’s Amateur when my handicap improved from the high 20s to the teens and I first became eligible, and I shot in the 100s each day. My Mom congratulated me, and I said, Mom, I was at the bottom of the list. And she said, ‘But you were on the list. You played; not everybody is able to do that.’”
Her mother, who first encouraged Ellie to play the game, died 18 months ago, the last in a string of losses that includes Ellie’s first husband, Gregory Large, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 34. He died on Christmas Day 1997, just five months after their only child, Gregory Jr., was born. Her father, George Roane, died suddenly at 70, also on Christmas Day six years later, and most devastatingly, Gregory Jr. committed suicide two years ago this week at age 20.
“I haven’t even begun to deal with the vast grief that has taken over me,” admitted Large. “It’s difficult and painful, and I’m certain I’m repressing part of it. But golf gives me something to focus on. There is a routine to things here, there’s a calm that you have to have, and I’m outside with people. Not everyone knows my story and they don’t necessarily need to, but the people you meet playing golf are very kind.”
Even as Large competes in this championship, the failure of her second marriage is imminent.
“My golf buddies are among my dearest friends,” said Large. “Along with one of my best friends from college, a group of them helped me move out of my home in anticipation of my divorce. I didn’t even have to call. They called first.”
Her lacrosse prowess indirectly brought her to the game and those friends. As Ellie Roane, she co-captained the first undefeated women’s lacrosse team in Tufts history in 1985, and the group was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this year. But 10 days before graduation, she suffered a torn ACL in the second-to-last game of the season.
After college, she wound up at Aetna Insurance in Hartford, and Gregory, her boyfriend at the time whom she met at Tufts, brought her with him to hit golf balls. Gregory was the son of a golfer but wasn’t particularly interested in the game.
“A couple of weeks later, my department at work had a golf outing,” said Large. “I bought an 18-pack of balls and by the time we finished, I had three left. Because we were the final group and it was a slow round, I kept my score, and I shot 189. But I hit it my last shot over the water next to the cup and everybody cheered. I said to myself, so this is how golf is.”
When she underwent knee surgery for the torn ACL the next winter, her two favorite pursuits, tennis and squash, were off-limits.
“I asked my doctor if I could hit golf balls,” she said. “That was fine, so I would go hit balls every day after work. Before long, I started playing with women in the office.”
Her next boss, Jennifer Smith Turner, who is now a board member of the Newman’s Own Foundation, became a mentor and friend.
“We played golf all the time, and she was like a big sister to me,” said Large. “After I left Aetna to go to grad school, she called me up to play on the first day of summer, and we played from daylight until dark.”
Large joined Rockledge Golf Club in West Hartford in her mid-20s and found herself playing with women in their 50s and 60s. “You find all of these intersections with people in those four hours together,” said Large. “That’s what golf brought to me. And to watch people who weren’t as strong as I was, but to see that they were so good, made me realize that golf isn’t about brute strength. I still play in a league there. They’ve been so supportive in the tragic things that have happened in my life. I love them.”
Large finds both support and inspiration in her fellow Senior Women’s Amateur competitors.
“I’ve watched Pam Kuong [the 2016 Senior Women’s Amateur runner-up] with awe and actually played a match against her some years ago,” said Large of her diminutive fellow New England player. “I remember her asking me how I was able to hit the ball so far. I said, Pam, you made a 4 and I made a 6; my ball is in the woods and yours is in the middle of the fairway. What do you need distance for? She’s a delight.”
A member of two golf associations in Connecticut, Large has twice won the individual title in the Endicott Cup, a tri-state event with Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“After my first husband died, there were periods of just trying to figure out what to do with myself,” said Large, who has been on the board of The First Tee of Connecticut for nearly a decade. “There were times when I could work through my sadness on the golf course, and other points where it just wasn’t possible raising my son. Before my father died, I took him out to the course and explained the game to him. He had only ever seen it on TV. He was a great athlete, and it was really fun to show him that.”
Large opened stroke play on Saturday with a round of 14-over 86, and her quest to improve continues.
“More recently, I’ve had the time, so I try to qualify for everything I can,” said Large. “Why not give it a shot? What’s the worst that can happen? In the grand scheme of things, being at the bottom of the list in a golf tournament means nothing. And it’s fun to watch and learn from the better players.”
As her mother would say, it’s far better than not getting on the list at all.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.